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Highs & lows of higher education: US & us

Calcutta celebrated the homecoming of one of its own on Monday. The Bengal Club, in association with The Telegraph, presented, as part of the Bengal Club Library Talk, a discussion by Porus Olpadwala on the successes and failures of higher education in the US and their implications in India. Olpadwala, one of the first Indian deans at a major American university, had earned his B.Com degree from St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta.

The talk by Olpadwala, who has been professor of city and regional planning, Dale Corson professor, dean of Hans Bethe House and chair of the AD White Professors-at-Large Program at Cornell University, and the ensuing interactive session was moderated by Arko Dev Chatterjee.

Rudrangshu Mukherjee of The Telegraph, who introduced Olpadwala, said the professor objected to the use of the word “lessons” as the term was far too loaded to be used correctly in such a context. This set the tone for the evening, as the moderator noted that running a university was one of the most challenging tasks because it involved managing people. He recalled Ratan Tata saying in 2006 that Indian universities featured nowhere among the top 300 universities of the time because the faculty at Indian universities were not doing interesting work. But, asked Chatterjee, was that the only reason?

Olpadwala, Dean Emeritus, College of Architecture, Art and Planning, started off by saying that the “trend is downwards” for higher education in the US. Recalling the halcyon years of US higher education, he said that in 2008, about 19 million people, 11 million of them women, were enrolled in four-year colleges. “More than a quarter of the population had a college degree. The US spends more than the United Kingdom and France on higher education. But now, the accessibility and the affordability of a university education in the US have plummeted drastically. There is a great system of inequity.” This is because tuition fees in private institutions alone are 3.5 per cent over inflation, enabling only hugely wealthy people or poor people with substantial support to afford a college education. He revealed that in the US, “college debt outstrips credit card debt”. In defence of US higher education, he outlined the challenges facing its unfunded mandates — reduction of government support, state legislatures going after universities and financial aid being cut down.

He also stressed on the amount of money being spent on student services and computing arrangements. “Science and scientific research take a huge cut of the education budget, resulting in the humanities getting the short shrift,” Olpadwala said. Strong in his belief that the US offers the best higher education in the world, he rued that bad planning and imbalances had crept in. The competition for students, he said, keeps getting fiercer, while there are hardly any seats to offer.

He stressed the need to balance research and teaching so that neither suffered. In India too, he said, university faculties should be allowed to pursue what they want intellectually, but a balance should be maintained.

Olpadwala was also vocal about the great need for proper public support for higher education, both from state governments and the Centre.