Reinventing the university
(appeared in Oct 2014)

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The institution of the university needs to change from inside as well as from outside, says S.Ananthanarayanan.

Early universities, whether at Nalanda or the monasteries of eleventh century Europe, were devoted exclusively to scholarship. It was only in the 1800s that universities followed the lead of England and Germany to give equal importance to scientific research. This change represented a stamp of approval to experiment and enquiry, till then an activity of tradesmen or mavericks, whose discoveries entered universities only after they were regarded as classical learning. “But in the past few decades,” says a review in the journal, Nature, “universities around the world have begun to take on further missions. Today they are supposed to be not only centres of education and discovery, but also engines of economic growth, beacons of social justice.” The review then examines changes and innovations, in the USA, China, South Korea, the UK and South Africa, of partnering with industry or commercializing research, to changing methods of administration and motivation and also overturning methods of instruction and delivery.

Industry enters the campus

Funding of research or research facilities by the industry has been a practice since some decades. Academics now routinely patent discoveries and universities formally connect faculty and students with companies though technology transfer, industrial partnerships, internships and mentoring. Going a step further, industry in the US has started stationing its staff right within the research lab. This removes the physical separation between the market and academia and makes for a relationship where each inspires the other and promotes shared excitement in solving problems.

Co-location presents challenges, of course, say Jana J Watson-Capps and Thomas R Cech, of Bio-c-Frontiers, a start-up co-located in the University of Colorado at Boulder. The first is the difference in motivation, academic or commercial. This demands that the rules be clear, that there are goals to be attained, but without impeding the course of research. Funding of the joint work needs to be from sources other than research funds, like rent from the co-located company or grants. Conflicts, including the ownership of IPR need to be addressed and also evaluation of students by academic standards despite the proximity of other beneficiaries

Co-location goes further than bring research and industry together, it connects the university to the community, and involves the academic view in daily matters, as well as engages the lay public in matters academic, which people too often choose to ignore.

Chinese three-step

Academician and Associate of the Chinese and US National Academies of Sciences and president of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Jie Zhang describes China’s concern to enable universities sustain the economic growth of the last few decades. Investment has increased and China’s expenditure on research and development in 2012 was over 160 billion dollars and over hundred billion dollars on education. (the picture shows how China’s R&D share, as a percentage of GDP, has grown faster than others’, despite huge rise in GDP)

The R&D expenditure in India, in contrast, was 40 billion dollars in 2012, rising to 44 billion in 2014.The education budget was below ten billion dollars in 2012.

The number of full time researchers in China increased by 38% from 2005 to 2012, of published articles by 54% and the patents awarded increased 8-fold in the same period. But the quality of research, Jie Zhang says, as judged by how often Chinese papers are cited, has not kept pace. In the year 2007, Shanghai Jiao Tong University hence embarked on an improvement drive, through high quality recruitment, recognition and incentives. World class scientists were hired to work at the cutting edge and to set a high bar. New junior researchers were competitively selected and their progress carefully evaluated. Attractive salary, incentive and career paths were devised and schools were given autonomy, finally arriving at a performance based tenure regime similar to that of the leading US universities. And for existing academics who do not fit into the new system, there is a fair exit scheme, which makes the change acceptable.

The measures taken have brought the university within top ranks worldwide and both patents publications are growing and so are citations. The measures have prompted a shift in educational emphasis and a culture that values and rewards innovation has taken root, he says.

The German experienceg

Chemist Worfgang Hermann, president of the Technical University of Munich since 1995, has succeeded in changing the archaic, hidebound, bureaucratic legacy since the 1960s and turning the university into a model of creativity, freedom, flexibility, writes Alison Abbott in the Nature review. Hermann replaced the control of the Government education ministry with a board of trustees, she says, and restructured the university on the lines of MIT in USA. He brought in rigorous and uniform coursework for PhD candidates so that a graduate school could maintain a standard. The freedom to raise funds, as an ‘entrepreneurial university’ was a revolutionary change, in keeping with the changed role of modern universities.

While there was resistance to the changes, the results –soaring scholarly output and sumptuous funding has put an end to all of it. “This new culture is now ingrained,” says Herrmann. “The next generation of leadership will continue in this vein.”

Korea - flipped classroom

Tae Eog Lee, who heads the Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) University at Daejeon, South Korea, has actually suspended the practice of teaching by lecture, says writer Mark Zastrow. In the ‘flipped classroom’, as Lee describes his new method, students do not sit through lectures, but they watch on-line lessons at home and come to class to discuss concepts and work on problems in groups. Teaching staff supervise and support, but the learning is by the students themselves. Lee says this way encourages creativity, teamwork and curiosity, all of which is suppressed by a one-way lecture, or even, as many believe, by Korea’s hierarchical society itself.

Other institutes in Korea have tried out the concept before, but Lee, in just two years, has taken the lead in the movement and 60 classes are now ‘flipped’ in KAIST. He hopes to raise the number to 800, or 30% of all classes in the next three years. The bulk of the students exposed report better understanding of subjects taught this way and also higher motivation and concentration. While there are doubters, Gerard Postiglione, who studies Asian higher education at Hong Kong, says universities in Asia are watching to see how the initiative of KAIST, now the second best in Asia, progresses. Some have already followed suit, including the prestigious Seoul National University.

UK goes on-line

Elizabeth Gibney reports that Mike Sharples, at the Open University at Milton Keynes, UK, is overtaking the wave of massive on-line courses (MOOCs), recorded lectures from US universities that thousands of students could follow on the Internet for free. Sharples follows the thinking of late Gordon Pask, British Educational phychologist who believed that students built up knowledge through mutual interactions. Sharlples redesigned the MOOCs with social engagement at the centre of the learning process. The courses allow discussion on every single element of the content, with the devices of ‘like’ and ‘follow’ of social networks and learning can take the intensity of on-line games. “It seems obvious in retrospect that people would want to talk about their learning, but it wasn’t obvious a year ago,” says Sharples.

The new MOOCs have better figures of the proportion of students who complete the courses they join. Although the enrollment is still less than that of Stanford and a provider at Cambridge, Massachusetts, the leaders grant that Sharples’ method, which uses student feedback to improve the interaction in the platform, is ‘evolving at a torrid pace’

Social transformation

South Africa has changed how education is delivered to undo the effects of earlier practices like apartheid. Linda Nordling reports that the University of Cape Town (UCT) programme helps disadvantaged children, mostly non-white, to acquire skills that their wealthier contemporaries take for granted. This includes help in language, counseling to develop better study habits, foundation courses in subject areas as well as field visits, like aquariums or the fossil park, park, science related experiences that students may have missed while growing up.

To provide time for extra activities, UCT has an optional 4-year programme to complete the 3-year Bachelor’s degree programme. Students join all together, but opt, after six weeks, to join the normal 3-yr course or the extended 4 years. The progress is still slow, with the proportion of black children who join university or complete the course being well below that of white students. But there are successes, like Mokete Koago, who hopes to join for a Master’s degree in oceanography next year. “When my parents came down for my graduation, it was the first time in their lives that they saw the sea,” he says.

The solution to the environmental crisis the earth faces lies in science and social dynamics, which are primarily studied in universities.

The International Alliance of Research Universities has brought together the leaders in environmental science for a three day Congress that starts today at Copenhagen.

Academics get together to discuss what may be the most pressing problem of the day, to identify priorities for the UN Climate Change Conference in Nov/Dec 2015

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