A pragmatic overview of higher education in regional languages
The Government of India has long been a firm proponent of the importance of offering education in regional languages. The most recent and significant policy document in the field of education, the National Education Policy 2020, echoes this vision and counsels that, “More HEIs, and more programmes in higher education, will use the mother tongue/local language as a medium of instruction, and/or offer programmes bilingually”. This proposal has become a hotly contested issue in national debates and general public parley.
The public discourse surrounding the proposal to offer higher education in regional languages has been overwhelmingly dominated by politically polarized viewpoints and opinions. This has led to an unfortunate omission of the standpoint of the stakeholders and academicians. The perspective of intellectuals with a lifetime’s worth of experience in education, which is perhaps of the most consequence, needs to be deliberated upon to form a sound understanding of the proposed policy, its merits and shortcomings as well as its logistical and pragmatic considerations.
With this objective, BSP approached different Professors in the IIT Delhi administration to find out the various challenges encountered in implementing the goal of making vernacular languages the medium of instruction in higher education institutions. We bring to you the key takeaways from these conversations.
Is fluency in English a necessity?
Adjusting to English is no longer an option but a necessity in today’s world. People find it easier to adjust at a young age instead of an older age. Even Professor Ramagopal Rao, the director of IIT Delhi. did his schooling in Telugu medium but learned English in the first year of college. It was one of the most important skills he developed and had it not been so, his career trajectory would have been strikingly different.
On average, a transition period of six months is required for getting comfortable with a new language. IIT Delhi conducts programs of language mentorship to make this transition easier. The institute is also taking several other steps to overcome the issues faced by students during the initial days and we are determined to further polish our ways in future. IIT Delhi has also tied up with a British firm for the same.
What are the hurdles in teaching courses in vernacular languages?
When it comes to the implementation and overall impact of vernacular languages in higher education, there are some critical hurdles. The first roadblock is recruiting faculties for each regional language. This will assuredly lead to a compromise on competence. Next, most of the books and research papers used in teaching the courses are written in English. Getting these translated and published in regional languages is a huge challenge.
Even if we somehow manage to tackle these issues and impart education in vernacular languages to the students, they eventually have to opt for higher studies or enter the job market, both of which do not have vernacular languages as a medium of communication.
Moreover, India is a diverse country and preparing separate rank lists for each regional language would create a system of reservation within reservations, which will greatly affect the quality of education.
As an alternative, entrance exams may be conducted in various regional languages and IITs can then give support and guidance to such students so that they become comfortable in English.
BSP approached Professor M Balakrishnan, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, IIT Delhi, to write an opinion editorial on this issue. As an experienced academic, his take on the proposal offers a uniquely thought-provoking insight into the policy. Read on to understand his analysis of higher education in India and the impacts that he believes the policy might have on the global perception and success of IITs.
Offering Undergraduate Engineering Programs in Indian Languages
Op-Ed by Prof. M. Balakrishnan
The Ministry of Education has recently decided that higher technical education Institutions including IITs, should consider offering undergraduate engineering education in languages other than English. A number of articles have appeared which have argued that comparison of Indian languages with Japanese or European languages for technical education is not appropriate. This is primarily because of our colonial past where our Indian languages missed out on the growth in the scientific literature that happened in parallel with the industrial revolution. Changing the medium of instruction to Indian languages would therefore be counterproductive to the quality of technical education. I strongly feel that such a move would not only negatively impact the quality of technical education but reduce the avenues left for students from economically weaker sections to break socioeconomic barriers. In this article, I reflect on the possible impact of such a change on the standing as well as education in IITs. Though written in the context of IITs, this is equally applicable to other public Institutions like NITs, IIITs and even government engineering colleges which attract the best available student and faculty talent in their region.
IITs in general represent that rare success where public Institutions, though in competition with private Institutions, are regarded as the best India has to offer. This is a result of three key factors – generous Government funding (vis-à-vis other Indian Institutions), complete academic and administrative autonomy and top-quality faculty. An overwhelming majority of faculty members recruited in these Institutions have had substantial exposure to global education and/or research and are expected to teach technical courses only in their area of expertise. With the need to teach in languages where the person is neither educated nor conducting research, the impact on the quality of education could only be negative.
The success of alumni both within and outside India has contributed significantly to the current brand image of IITs. Apart from exposure to high-quality education, living and studying with students from across a continent-sized country with varied languages, cultures, religions, food habits etc. has played a major role in building the personality of our alumni. The breaking out of perceptions of stereotypes associated with different people contributes significantly towards reaching leadership positions in national and international enterprises. This aspect of national Institutions may not be widely talked about but those of us who have spent many decades in these Institutions understand the critical role this plays. What impact would it have if each IIT, because of the regional language-specific programs, start attracting students and faculty from only that region?
Technical education in English provided IIT graduates with global opportunities almost since their inception and continues to do so. In the first four decades of their existence, the brain drain of its undergraduates was a continuous “accusation” against the IITs. On the other hand, once the Indian economy opened up, the same alumni network has played a key role in developing not only the IT sector but also in bringing global R&D companies to India. It is clear that without technical education in English, this would not have been possible.
Clearly, the present Atmanirbhar 2.0 effort is very different from the Atmanirbhar 1.0 that existed before liberalization in the early ’90s. We were clearly Atmanirbhar then as all the goods in a typical Indian household were “Made in India '' unless one had a cousin working in the Indian Foreign Service or Air India. The quality of goods “Made in India” was shoddy and both materials used and production processes were outdated and could not withstand the global competition when the economy opened up. We all understand that the aspiration of India today is different – we not only want “Made in India'' but also that our products have to be high quality and are able to compete with the best globally. Would such a move enable or put barriers in achieving this goal?
What does excellence in education mean today? Our Institutions have to be globally competitive – not only to attract students from around the world but even to attract and retain the best Indian talent. The “Institution of Eminence” scheme has energized our Institutions and for the first time, we are thinking out of the box and taking steps to be counted among the very best in the world. In pre-liberalized India, very few Indian families could afford to send their children abroad for undergraduate education and thus IITs attracted the best available talent by default. On the other hand today, Indian students going abroad for higher education is growing at 18% p.a. and a move to teaching in regional languages is not going to help IITs compete for global talent but even for Indian talent.
It is easy to see the impact of such a move on public engineering Institutions. With private Institutions continuing to teach in English as it had happened in schooling, it is only the Government Institutions that would lose prestige and talent. Once public Institutions lose their standing, the opportunity available today for economically weaker sections for high-quality technical education opening up top-level career opportunities would also disappear. Again, if any lessons have to be learnt from what happened with the medium of instruction in Schools, Central Government Institutions may retain English as an option but state Institutions would come under political pressure to shift Government Institutions to the state language majorly curtailing their graduates' mobility even within the country.
Interestingly, from a technology point of view, this is quite an inappropriate time to look at the language issue in higher education. By all indications, real-time high-quality language translation would be a “commodity” in 5 years whereas speech synthesis in different languages is already becoming commonplace. Even today, text translations are getting to be of very acceptable quality, especially in technical subjects where, unlike literature, the language nuances generally do not matter. If one area India should invest and take a lead-in, it should be in this technology as it can do more than anything else to bring people of different regions together and understand each other.
Should anything change in IITs in this aspect? NEP 2020 talks about technical Institutions like IITs becoming multi-disciplinary and if one looks at the trajectory of growth of the older IITs, they were slowly expanding beyond their initial engineering mandate. NEP 2020 should help them accelerate this process and many more Departments that connect the Institutions with the society around them should be promoted. They could focus on regional language (rather than just English) as a subject, culture and local industry sectors as we strongly believe that such societal links lead to innovations that can result in products and processes with impact much beyond the region.
I am a Tamilian who did all my schooling in Hindi medium having been brought up in a small town in Rajasthan. I may not have had exposure to English to understand the nuances of Shakespeare but do not consider higher technical education in English posed any challenge. I strongly support the NEP 2020 recommendations of early school education in the mother tongue where the importance of the family and surroundings play an important role in learning and cognitive development. Even this should be applied across the whole education spectrum and not just for public Institutions as I believe equal opportunity should not only be a fundamental right but is also key to the stability of any society in the long run. The same doesn’t apply to higher technical education where the clear focus today is to be globally competitive.
In conclusion, India has thrown a huge challenge in front of IITs – to become Institutions of global repute. They need to focus all their efforts to attract the top talent including Indian students and faculty. Now to offer courses in regional languages at best would be a distraction and at worst could push them back in these efforts significantly.