Wisdom from the peripheryLocated far away from Delhi, Sikkim University adopted daring innovations and transforming practices.
Mahendra P Lama
When we set out to build the first national university in Sikkim in 2007, our mission was to initiate a robust national institution with a global orientation and a strong local ethos. Some of the best minds engaged in the development and management of higher education from various national and international institutions were brought to Gangtok. This critical mass provided the new institution with an orientation that would suit its location in a mountainous area with affluent biodiversity and intellectual heritage. Many of us who were associated with some of the best educational institutions firmly believed in not replicating any model. So the primary determinants were a core quality faculty, students from all across the nation, and a management team with distinct professionalism.
The crucial actions were in floating multidisciplinary programmes with a significant field and practical knowledge base, and a strict measure of scientific and continuous evaluation. Everyone strived to ensure that each graduate would go out with a degree ‘plus’ qualification in terms of knowledge, competitive spirit and innovative instincts, and conscious of socially cohesive principles and moral uprightness. It was actually the search for and realisation of these value addition of ‘plusses’ in the graduating degree that made the university a new flag bearer of both the University Grants Commission and the Ministry of Human Resource Development of the government of India.
New Education Policy
Many of the core contents in the recently announced New Education Policy 2020 of the government of India have so many striking similarities with what Sikkim University has already done. While stating education as the great leveller and as the best tool for achieving economic and social mobility, inclusion and equality, the Policy puts teachers at the centre of the fundamental reforms because ‘they truly shape the next generation of citizens’.
This new policy amply highlights multidisciplinary and holistic education across the sciences, social sciences, arts, humanities and sports. For this to be realised, emphasis is placed on pedagogy with increased emphasis on communication, discussion, debate, research and opportunities for cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary thinking. It amply highlights experiential learning and stresses reduced curriculum content, limiting each subject to its core essentials to make space for critical thinking, and is based more on a holistic aptitude, inquiry, discovery, discussion and analysis. Key concepts, ideas, applications and problem-solving should be the mode of teaching and learning with strong interactions based on fun, creativity, collaboration and exploration. The aim will be to increase the gross enrolment ratio in higher education from 26.3 percent in 2018 to 50 percent by 2035.
Sikkim University, located in the periphery far away from New Delhi, did exactly what the New Education Policy now propagates as the conspicuous way forward. In some cases, more daring innovations and transforming practices were put in place by this infant university. Several multidisciplinary schools like that of Sustainable Development and Human Security, Global Studies, Peace and Conflict Studies, Indigenous and Folk Studies and Languages were set up, for which the University Grants Commission sanctioned a record of more than 200 faculty positions at one go.
Besides setting up new departments like those of Ethno-Botany and Social Medicines, Microbiology, Mass Communication and IT, Mountain Music, China Studies, and Horticulture and Floriculture, several five-year integrated programmes were floated. Besides Nepali, provisions were provided for the three indigenous languages—Bhutia, Lepcha and Limbu—up to the doctoral degree.
The semesters are named Spring and Monsoon, and the results are declared within 20 days of the last day of the examinations. We regularly visited colleges and schools to train teachers to teach students ‘why mathematics’ rather than the orthodox ‘what is mathematics’. In a place where once-a-year examinations were held, continuous evaluation with a credit-based grading system was intricately put in place. Students and teachers made compulsory open class presentations. We asked for three years from students, and promised them 70 years of highly productive lives. Within three years, most of these students coming from all backgrounds became confident, informed, empowered and forward-looking.
No peons and she first
All the courses are interdisciplinary, and students can jump from one discipline to another. After completing one year of regular education, they can go out, work, experiment, and come back within 10 years to complete the degree. The curriculum was developed by the best interdisciplinary national and global faculty with the set content of 30 percent theories, 40 percent examples, and the final 30 percent from field exposures. To supplement classroom teaching, compulsory inter-school and interdisciplinary one-month field study projects known as Winter Sojourn and Oral History were introduced. These became very popular as they studied water to pass time games, trafficking to women vendors, tea and cinchona to cardamom and ginger, and climate change, disasters and communities to cultural and intellectual heritage.
Unprecedented practices like zero corruption, no peons, she first, no mention of category remarks against affirmative action based induction, taking laboratories to the communities, printing degree certificates at the security press of Nashik and digitised library access made the university a reservoir of ideas, innovations and prolific activities. Besides global and national lectures, visits by widely known personalities from all fields from across the world, interconnection with global universities, fortnightly management staff meetings, student admission centres all over the country and in the neighbouring nations, ethnic and biodiversity museum and community radio project were widely acclaimed by the regulatory agencies and other institutions.
The appointment of the faculty members was done by the most eminent domain experts. While briefing the panel of experts before the interview, the first point the vice-chancellor made was that he had no personal candidate, and hence the selection process must be detached from any consideration other than merit and professionalism. Delivering the first convocation address in 2010, the president of India declared Sikkim University the future leader of the entire Himalayan region. Father of Green Revolution Prof MS Swaminathan injected all the finer nuances of science and scientific temper as the founding chancellor of the university. Thus the periphery was transformed as the centre by a subtle yet far-reaching instrument of education.