How would you grade the performance of higher education, particularly research, in India, arguably a great education factory? Specially since the recently approved 12th Five Year Plan is optimistic of reaching the target of 30 per cent GER (gross enrollment ratio) by 2030, which would align India (more or less) with the global average (26 per cent). As per the Plan, a whopping `1,10,700 crore has also been earmarked for higher education.
Higher education in India
As a nation investing in higher education, India has a good track record. It spends around 3 per cent of its GDP on higher education, (taking into account both the government and private entities), and is ahead of both USA and Korea (as per the 12th Five Year Plan). After the major pay scale hike in 2006, our academics are also better paid when compared to their counterparts in Brazil, China and Russia. Unlike western countries, once an academic is recruited, there is an assured growth chart, measured more by experience on the job and less by performance.
Factor in the fact that there are nearly 700 universities, 45,000 colleges and around 12,000 diploma institutes in the country, and one could say that all the desirable elements are in place to make India an ideal destination for shoppers of quality research personnel: a willing student population, a faculty of well-paid teaching staff, and institutions with long standing reputation dating back to centuries should put India in a match winning situation.
The actual scenario
However, that is not the case. For example, in 2007-2008, India produced only 10,781 PhDs, a not very significant number for a nation of over a billion people. While China and USA churn out 30,000 and 25,000 PhDs in engineering and science, India appears to be a bit of a back-bencher.
Again, filing for and receiving patents—which is another way of measuring high quality research and innovation, India’s performance is average. For example, in 2009, Indians filed around 11,937 patent applications, as against the 2,41,546 by Chinese. More worryingly, not a single Indian university figured in the rank list of top 200 desirable higher education entities in the world, released by the Times Higher Education (THE) Rankings as well as the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) for the year 2011.
Producing world-class institutes
Why are we unable to produce world-class researchers, and can we make the paradigm shift, something the latest Five Year Plan believes is possible? Experts say a little application of mind can fetch better results. Pawan Agarwal, one of the Planning Commission’s advisers on higher education, says that academic institutes should be given more leeway in terms of curriculum, teaching style and performance-based incentives for teachers. “Teaching is far more complex today than it was a few decades ago, since we get a diverse group, including those on scholarships and quotas. There is very little instructions on how to instruct such a composite group of students. The role of education is to deliver value addition for each and every student, from the highest to the lowest in academic preparedness,” observes Agarwal.
While pointing out that comparisons with China or the West may not always be correct, given that nearly half of India is dependent on rural (agriculture) livelihood, Agarwal says there is an urgent need for public discourse. “Although the 12th Five Year Plan gives a broad framework for qualitative improvement, change will happen only if we bring lateral thinking into our classrooms. Action does not lie in the hands of AICTE or policymakers, but with institutional heads who need to push for better, relevant curriculum and try to do away with pedagogy,” he adds.
India’s share of the pie
According to some estimates, there will be a shortfall of about 40 million workers in the highly skilled category by 2020, whereas India will see a huge turnout of graduates in that time frame. But can India be the answer for such a shortage, and more importantly, can the quality of India’s higher education be benchmarked competitively? Is there a lacuna in conceptualising and delivering cutting-edge higher education to our student body?
India’s research output — which impacts our economic growth is abysmally low, often a third of China’s output, say experts. “Even industrial research output is below desirable levels—we have over 50 CSR labs, but their quality is below par,” feels E Balagurusamy, former vice-chancellor, Anna University, and former member, State Planning Commission.
Key areas of concern
According to him, there are four key areas of concern when it comes to delivering quality higher education. The first is an acute shortage of quality faculty in many institutions, including the IITs. “Nearly 40 per cent of senior posts are lying vacant with the result that the available faculty is overloaded with teaching work, leaving little time for research,” he says.
Balagurusamy also says that those entering the field of research need the right temperament. “This is not a nine to five job, but one where you have to spend all your waking hours in researching your subject, but most people seem to have other distractions in their daily lives,” he feels.
However, students say that faculty are often careless of the man hours committed to them, and cancel or postpone sessions frequently. Other experts such as Agarwal, and Krishnan Balasubramanian, dean, Industrial Consultancy and Sponsored Research, IIT-Madras, also share similar concerns, and want the system to find ways of rewarding only the deserving and not the deadwood as well
A senior professor says that teaching to any age group is a complex job today, seeing that many students today have fractured attention span and are also too opinionated, unlike students of the past. “While a few students come with a passion for the quest, most enrol with a job as the goal, and that is against the scientific spirit,” say experts. The Five Year Plans provide an outlay for higher education, which was nearly `85,000 crore in the previous Plan (11th). However, not even half that amount has been utilised. Balagurusamy says many institutes lack good lab infrastructure. “The UGC allocates the funds based on requests, but many universities fail to avail of the funds. We need a more proactive university team,” he says.
India and research
Pointing out the research culture gained currency only in the last decade and a half, Prof Krishnan says, “The best of India in research match with the best in the world in terms of publication and quality of research. The launch of the Tata Nano is a fine example of research and successful monetisation. We are not copy pasting foreign technology automatically any more,” says Krishnan. Balagurusamy feels that granting autonomy status to R & D labs will free the research community from a lot of red tape and get everyone going in the right direction.
Finally it is all a Catch-22 situation. For quality higher education, you need to pay and get the best in the field, but to retain such quality staff you need students of high calibre, and students will only get attracted to an institute of repute.