IntroductionOne of the most important challenges in bridging the urban-rural divide is to enable lakhs of rural area students to learn English as a tool to advance in their careers and to match their urban counterparts in terms of skills. A recent article of mine How to Make English Interesting for Non-English Medium Students sought to highlight aspects of this in some detail. However, English is just the first starting point. There are many other action plans that need the urgent attention of the UGC and the Vice-chancellors and other educationists who take decisions.
In the main, the specific action plans are a) Creating learning environments that match urban centers b) Creating lead centers c) Exchange of teachers through MOUs d) Creating virtual learning in a cluster of districts and e) Making alumni share their learning for motivation.
Creating learning environments that match urban centersAn extremely famous question that is most often asked about non-Chennai deemed Universities is: how does SASTRA which is a deemed university based in a predominantly agricultural town like Tanjore make it? The standards of education are so good that the University has so many international collaborations and a good placement record as well. The key reasons here: intent and commitment. SASTRA is not a money-making proposition. It has its own entrance examination and has been able to attract students from across India and Africa as well. It has MOUs with leading TVS group companies like Brakes India Private Limited. This is not all. The University creates learning environments by attracting the best of faculty members from across the nation. The industry experts come from the neighboring BHEL which has a very big manufacturing unit in close vicinity. It is not without reason that SASTRA is a name to reckon with.
In every rural environment like Tanjore, it is quite likely that there are many unsung heroes on a pan-India basis. We just need to identify them and then learn from their experiences. The local university authorities need to step in and enable the learning process to happen. The trick is to give the rural students the vital " exposure". The nature of the knowledge to draw out people and then make them aware of global events is the same in urban and rural environments. However, the emphasis and the method of bringing home the relevant points to the target audience in the rural environs will and should obviously be different.
For instance, the speaker can simply make a presentation on the 2008 global financial crisis by merely talking about what mistakes Leeman Brothers did in the USA or the making of the housing crisis in very broad terms in any metro city. However, if the same speaker were to make this presentation in Khammam in AP or Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu or Kollam in Kerala, explaining the background of each institution or event would become absolutely essential. This is all the more pertinent in such environs where the standards of learning through the English language is still not as perfect as what it should be, or nowhere near the metro city levels. The trick is to use the local language to drive home any major point and then explain in English.
Creating lead centersHow about an auditorium that is air-conditioned with a seating capacity of three thousand students, complete with all the best audio and video facilities? This will make a big difference if it were to be created or is already existing in a particular town in the best-known college. Obviously, this college will act as the lead center of learning and there could be one or two more such lead colleges in every district of India. The subject experts could be drawn from within or even outside the State. The funds for this purpose can always come from the local Corporate organizations, rich farmers, and so on. For instance, many farmers have donated land and cash resources to set up the somewhat branded Kongu Engineering College near Erode. Such colleges should act as lead colleges to impart the best of knowledge through various training programs on a continuous basis.
Exchange of teachers through MOUsThis also needs to happen as a routine. Teachers from Annamal University which is a well-known branded University should be asked to teach the students of two engineering colleges in two backward areas of Kanyakumari district. It is obvious that Annamalai University conducts hundreds of international conferences where the exposure levels of faculty members are very high. Hence, if the knowledge dissemination can take place through an MOU and become formalized, this should indeed happen. The best teacher from such institutions can also be made to teach at Annamalai University, and this will be a good learning experience for that teacher.
Creating virtual learning in a cluster of districtsThis is important too. Since I know only about Tamil Nadu, I will give this example. The COVID-19 has compulsorily made online or virtually possible through the best of available technologies. The clamor for this is bound to increase. The trick is to pool resources in a cluster of districts. For example, Coimbatore and Erode could become a cluster, and Salem and Dharmapuri could form a cluster. With the active help of the IT companies and the State Government, if the facilities could be improved in just four good arts and science or engineering colleges, virtual learning can be facilitated, post-COVID, on a mass basis. The teaching can be partly in the local language as well. For example, if the subject were to the latest advances in Artificial Intelligence, there could be a certificate course of six months, made available through virtual learning, and given by a local deemed University. The exchange of ideas in such situations is likely to be far in excess of normal expectations and the results are likely to be good. However, this needs to become a pan-India phenomenon and the likes of the UGC and AICTE should get into the act and get involved in a big way.
Making alumni share their learning for motivationLife is not a learning process that stops at the school or college levels. It extends far beyond State or even country borders. Those who have studied in extraordinarily humble environments in the rural areas in many parts of India have gone on to become IAS officers, world-class economists, and so on. It does make some sense to make such alumni come to rural colleges and share their experiences. This " he is our own" or "she is our woman" connect can bring about an electrifying difference in the motivational levels of the students. Dr. Abdul Kalam would often highlight his humble beginnings in many of his speeches and the way poverty made his school life difficult. Such learning from adversity is quite likely to bring about a drastic change in the mind-sets of rural students anywhere in the country. This should become a routine practice.
ConclusionsBased on a number of real-world observations and my own personal experiences, as well as the exchange of ideas with the best of teachers in many institutions, I have discussed some steps that can make some difference in bridging the urban-rural divide. The ideas are not exhaustive. They are indicative and can possibly form the trigger points for wider debates and immediate action. That India cannot miss the bus in maximizing the big advantage of its demographic divide is something that needs to be recognized and duly acknowledged.