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HIGHER EDUCATION-QUEST FOR EXCELLENCE

Francis Kuriakose


“Here stands the fine monument of India, representing India’s urges, India’s future in the making. This picture seems to be symbolical of the changes that are coming to India,” remarked Jawaharlal Nehru at the first convocation address of IIT Kharagpur. The foundation for the system of higher technical education for independent India was set up by Sir Jogendra Singh of the Viceroy’s executive council way back in 1946. Independent India was fortunate to have a panoply of visionary institution builders which paved the way for India’s future in the years to come. Nehru himself held the portfolio of Science and Technology and was largely responsible for the Scientific Policy Resolution (1958). He described Science as “the very texture of life” and established premier institutes of higher learning like AIIMS, IIMs, IITs and envisioned JNU. He once optimistically declared that "science alone . . . can solve problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening customs."Indian education grew up on the shoulders of men like Nehru, Bhabha and so on. Six decades later, the quality of higher education in India is lamentable. How did the hallowed portals of higher education become the ‘great ailing child’ of India?

THE AILING SYSTEM

A university is a repository of scholarship, dedicated to teaching and research in the spirit of free and critical inquiry, tolerance of diversity and a commitment to resolution of difference of opinion through dialogue and debate. A university is a melange of ideas, a gateway to the borderless knowledge based world. Ideas rule the world, impart vitality to the society and help civilisations to evolve and bloom. A society bereft of ideas is on its death bed, doomed to stagnation and decay.

Before going into the diagnosis of the problem, we need to examine some facts and figures. Indian government has allocated Rs 3280 crores for setting up 12 Central Universities in addition to the existing 18. There is also an ambitious plan to create 30 ‘world class institutes’ including 8 IITs and 7 IIMs in the next few years. This may seem huge but India actually spends only less than 1% of its GDP on Research and Development. China has overtaken Japan as the second largest investor on R&D just behind the US with $ 136 billion (2006), Brazil has recently submitted an annual R&D budget of $4.1 billion. The entire spending on R&D in India could be about that in a large US State University. The OECD report shows that the number of science researchers in China has grown by 77 per cent between 1995 and 2004, reaching 926,000. This is not far behind the 1.3 million researchers in the United States. India has about 1.5 lakh core researchers; that comes to about 156 researchers per million of the population. A Chinese University (Tsinghua University) has 4600 faculty for 26500 students including 5000 PhD candidates. India educates only half many young people from the University age group as China and ranks behind Latin American and middle income countries. In the ranking of top notch schools by Academic Ranking of World Universities (2007), none of India’s 348 Universities ranks in the top 100. IISc and IIT Kharagpur ranks in the 301-400 slots. In the Times Higher Education Supplement (2006) India has just 3 Universities in the top 200 slot where as nine Asian Universities outside China, Hong Kong and Japan have made it. It is clear that India exhibits a unique problem at the highest level of education. With a few notable exceptions, outstanding institutes of research and excellent Universities are at rare in the country.

THE GREAT HURDLES

The first great hurdle is the oppressive sclerotic bureaucracy that India is notorious for. The wheels of decision-making grind slowly in an exasperating pace. Permission is mandatory from the higher rungs of hierarchy for almost everything. Such feudalistic framework kills the incentive of earnest academics to innovate. Institutions with a relative degree of autonomy have always succeeded. It is instructive to note the exceptional visionaries like K.N.Raj, who built the Delhi School of Economics into one of the finest schools for economics in the country, went in pursuit of excellence instead of the rule book. It is impossible to build world class institutes within a bureaucratic set up that is accountable to no one.

The second problem ailing the system is that it is wedded to mediocrity. Indians are rewarded for their longevity rather than productivity, conformity rather than creativity. A career in academics is a slow and arduous climb upwards and one is rewarded and elevated by default as years roll by. The proportion of publications by Indian academics in international journals has taken a southward dip. One who teaches should never cease to learn. Ironically, settling down with an academic profession is a death knell to the academic pursuits in this country if we were not immensely self motivated. Without deep structural changes in the way institutes are governed, creating centres of excellence will remain a distant dream..

Corruption is the hydra-headed monster prevalent in all institutional systems in this country without exception. Favouritism in appointment to faculty positions, admissions, cheating in examination, plagiarism in thesis and questionable coaching arrangements plague the system. Paucity of funds and excellent academics is a major setback. World class universities require a salary structure compatible with world standards for the teaching community if we are to attract the best in the field to train young minds.

THE PRUDENTIAL STRATEGY

All the decisions should be based on meritocracy. Quality should never become the casualty. Our universities need to hire the best professors and reward the brightest talent generously. Bold thinking must be applauded and risk takers must not be shot dead. ‘New idea fund’ started in the mid nineties in CSIR, schemes like INSPIRE, set up by IISER and the recently instituted awards for excellence by INFOSYS are excellent examples of an innovative eco-system to nourish creativity. We can thus address bottleneck of ideas. Quotas and rigid frameworks have to go if we have to rise to global standards. The second most important thing is that our universities need to be research centric; our academic culture has to change. We need to focus on two areas here- both knowledge intensity (amount of knowledge per graduating student) and technology intensity (transformation of existing knowledge into new knowledge). The concept of internationalisation of education has transcended geography and has created a borderless world. The President of Yale University, Richard Levin rightly remarked that “creating a global university is also a revolutionary development- signalling distinct changes in the substance of teaching and research, the demographic characteristics of students and scholars, the scope and breadth of external collaborations and the engagement of university with new audiences.” There must be a realisation that research in any part of the world cannot be fully understood in isolation. Merely inviting foreign universities to our soil even before we are ready to collaborate and compete can have disastrous consequences. Before undertaking the plunge, we need to change the student profile, adopt best practice bench marks and discard the unimaginative curricula. Democratisation of access and secularisation of ideas should be ensured. Onus on scholarships and financial benevolence to meritorious students will be of help. In the US, the total endowment of the top 50 universities is over $160 billion; it is almost a third of India’s GDP! John Harvard, Leland Stanford, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and Elihu Yale contributed generously to set up what are indubitably world class institutions. “Private Universities in public service” should be the motto.

Great civilisations have flourished due to the vibrancy of ideas. As Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman noted,’ the difficulty is often in escaping the old ideas’. A certain degree of irreverence to established customs is required to solve the problem. Just pumping money into a fundamentally broken system of universities will not work. Nor will scattershot spending or aping the western model.  What we require is vision and originality of thoughts. A system oppressed under its own ossified rituals and epistemological and pedagogic constraints can never survive for long period of time. We can leverage an overhaul by introducing innovative eco system for education, great organisational values and imaginative curricula. We have to set free the system from the penumbra of incompetence. We have to discover the hidden ‘Ramans’ and ‘Ramanujans’ in our country.



About the Author

Francis Kuriakose is a Doctoral candidate at the Indian Institute of Capital Markets, Mumbai. He has worked with General Electric (GE), taught at University of Kerala and was the Editor of an Indo-French magazine.


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