India plans to set up a 'meta-university', a countrywide network for higher education that will allow students the flexibility to design their own curriculum and combine subjects of their choice, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has announced.
Others have floated the idea of a meta-university. Notably Charles Vest, president-emeritus at America's Massachusetts Institute of Technology, first talked of the emergence of the meta-university in a speech more than five years ago.
However, if fully implemented India could be host to the world's first national meta-university.
According to the government, the proposed interconnected web-based platform will enable students and teachers to access and share teaching material, scholarly publications, research, scientific work and virtual experiments. The internet will provide the communication infrastructure, while a network of universities will offer courses in various disciplines, facilitating more collaborative and multidisciplinary learning.
Students enrolled in a college or a university will be able to pursue courses in other universities and colleges. At present, students registered at one university cannot attend classes or courses offered at another, unless an exchange programme exists between them.
"The meta-university would enable a student of astrophysics at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, for example, to take up a course in comparative literature at Jadavpur University [in Kolkata]. Such creative reconfigurations are expected to create 'new minds' conducive to innovation," said Singh in a speech to the National Innovation Council (NIC) on 15 November.
Singh pointed out that "demographically we are also a very youthful nation. The young people are restless, they are impatient for change, and they are innovative. We need to fully exploit these enormous advantages that we have as a nation."
The government describes 'new minds' as combining "right brain and left brain - attributes that foster innovation".
NIC chair Sam Pitroda said the aim was to use the meta-university as a tool to rethink education. Students "would be tested for their competencies before enrolling in a particular programme in another university, and will be awarded degrees," he said.
The meta-university concept is similar to the Academy of Scientific and Innovative Research, a recent virtual university championed by the publicly-funded Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). It allows the CSIR to offer courses, degrees and diplomas to graduates without requiring them to register at bricks-and-mortar universities.
"The aim is to enable information technology connectivity," said CSIR director-general Samir Brahmachari, who is also a member of the NIC. "It is not possible for every student to physically take every course at the university of his choice. But all students will be able to access course material of their choice."
The meta-university will use the National Knowledge Network, which connects a large number of central and state universities and other higher education institutions via a high-speed fibre-based broadband network.
The knowledge network will ultimately link all universities, research institutions, libraries, laboratories, hospitals and agricultural institutions across the country.
However, practical problems that have prevented the implementation of previous similar proposals will still have to be addressed. In 2009, the government approved connecting 18,000 colleges and 419 universities. So far, however, only 11,600 colleges now have internet connectivity.
Just over two years ago India's three science academies jointly proposed changes to allow students to pick courses across disciplines within the same university. That proposal has yet to be implemented.
Implementation of the meta-university would also require all participating institutions to have a similar credit and grading system, which is not currently the case.
"The idea of a meta-university is very good but the question is: Are our universities ready to take this up? I think a combination of incentives and force will be necessary to do this," said Subhash Lakhotia, a senior zoologist at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi.
Some experts say that with little progress on several other higher education reforms, this announcement appears to be another 'grand idea' from the government that lacks a coherent roadmap for implementation.
The Foreign Universities Bill, the National Council for Higher Education and Research Bill, the Educational Tribunal Bill, the Prohibition of Unfair Practices Bill, and the National Academic Depository Bill are among the many higher education reform bills awaiting the approval of parliament.
"Much of the detail is still being worked out," said R Gopalakrishnan, additional secretary in the Prime Minister's Office and a member of the NIC. "But initially we are trying to get leading Delhi-based institutions on board. The Human Resource Development Ministry is closely working with us on this."
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A great leap forward at the right time. But the governmental role shouldl be kept at a minimum, giving the due infrastructure to participatory institutions and full publicity for this new deal. This move may inspire middle and primary level participation. A meta-university shouldl not be either left to bureaucracy or to educator-administrators and bureaucratic functionaries, who resist change.The campus is a free space in society to generate and exchange ideas. This paradigm can be ventured upon now by the mass of teachers and students. 'Think dangerously', 'Research translationally' to take the society, economy, polity, science and technology on a more advanced and risky level by its praxis of education and training in future course of history.
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