The flip side to the Indian education story, much lauded for increasing accessibility to its citizens, is the abysmal research activities conducted by institutions of higher learning. Despite acknowledgement by all those who matter that research work must be nurtured, not much has happened. This is reflected in the fact that not even one per cent of students pursuing higher studies opt for research-oriented courses, a fact that was revealed by the Union Government in a written answer to the Rajya Sabha in August. “India faces a huge challenge of striking a balance between access and quality. Given the focus of policy-making on access, the quality of higher education has suffered. The research infrastructure in India lags,” says Rahul Choudaha, Director of Research and Strategic Development World Education Services, New York.
State of play
India possesses a highly developed higher education system, which offers the facility of education and training in almost all aspects of human creativity and intellectual endeavours like arts and humanities; natural, mathematical and social sciences; engineering; medicine; dentistry; agriculture; education; law; commerce and management; music and performing arts; national and foreign languages; culture; communications, etc. Under the Central government, there are 45 technical institutes, 13 management institutes, four information technology institutes, six science and research institutes and three planning and architecture institutes. The Planning Commission in its approach paper to 12th Five-Year Plan had suggested that the current “not-for-profit” approach in the education sector should be re-examined in a pragmatic manner so as to ensure quality without losing focus on equity.
Madhav G Deo, vice president and secretary, Moving Academy of Medicine and Biomedicine (MAMB), states, “Even six decades after independence, medical research, which is the mother of new knowledge, has remained a non-issue. If India were to emerge as a global leader, the emphasis must shift from ‘importing’ knowledge to indigenous generation of new knowledge. This cannot be done without developing research-oriented educational programmes both at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels.”
The unacceptably low level of R&D surely has a correlation with India’s poor share of the global manufacturing and trade pie. Quoting a recent report, which revealed that $1.4 trillion were spent globally on R&D, Shashi Tharoor, Minister of State for HRD, said that of this, India’s contribution was only 2.1 per cent compared to 33 per cent by the US and over 12.6 per cent by China.
Need for competitive research
Some institutions of India, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institutes of Management, National Institutes of Technology and Jawaharlal Nehru University have been globally acclaimed for their standard of education. The IITs enroll about 8,000 students annually and the alumni have contributed to both the growth of the private and public sectors of India.
However, India still lacks universities that are on par with internationally prestigious varsities like the Ivy Leagues, Cambridge, and Oxford. Also, no Indian university figures in the list of top 200 universities of the world. Prof BN Raghunandan, dean of engineering, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, says, “While ranking universities globally, 30 per cent weightage is given to research and another 30 per cent is given to citations.”
Competitive allocation of funding would translate into a successful model for research agencies and ministries, he argues. “First and foremost, it allowed targeting of research funding to objectives. Another was that since peer review was the usual mode of evaluation, focus on competitive allocation should lead to improved performance.”
Mahua Das Sadhale, an Indian postdoc researcher in international health and based in the UK, says, “In India, there is little recognition for novel ideas and themes, lack of schools which accept challenging ideas, lack of research funding as well as the notion that research cannot be profitable like that of teaching, especially, in the case of social sciences where we call ourselves worthy orphans.”
No PhD factories here
Choudaha reasons, “Today, Indian students have few options to pursue a career in research. This indicates a deficiency on the part of the policy framework which has not created enough incentives and recognition for institutions to provide research-oriented courses and at the same time, it has missed to create an ecosystem of research talent.”
Krithika Gokulnath, a PhD student in biophysics, University of Madras, adds, “Students, who are at the core of the academic system, are completely ignored. How long can a research model, which forces students to live on meagre stipend, survive? Despite years of research, many researchers, especially men, are compelled to join the industry. On top of it, scholars are given monthly scholarships of `35,000 and 50,000, for science and engineering courses, respectively. But every time a scholar intends to avail the amount, he/she has to carry out a time-consuming and cumbersome process.”
The Indian Government spends much of the funds allotted to education on primary and secondary education with the hope that self-motivation and industrial demands would pull researchers into critical zones. The aggregate domestic research and development (R&D) spending has never exceeded one per cent of GDP.
Besides, about 75-80 per cent of India’s R&D spending comes from public enterprises, while in OECD countries, more than 75 per cent comes from private enterprises. India also fares very low in the ratio of researchers to the total population: It has 120 people employed in R&D per million of the population when compared to 633 for China. “We need to spend at least two per cent of GDP on research to become a knowledge-driven society. We are around 0.5 per cent now. Around 60 lakh students graduate annually. Assuming five per cent indulge in some research, it adds up to 300,000 a year with some research experience,” says Mohandas Pai, chairman of Manipal Global Education. “If one in five pursues full-time careers in research, we will have 60,000 postdocs a year in India.”
Industry is rarely seen as a significant employer of PhDs. Maybe the cry for more PhDs must be muted, while facts are gathered and interpreted. Prof Raghunandan says, “PhD projects should be financed jointly by interested private companies as well as research organisations, and the companies have a vested interest to receive not only the direct results from the research, but also trained individuals that can integrate the research outcomes into their product development or manufacturing process.”
The higher education sector, owing to its huge potential, is promising. With an estimated 150 million people in the age group of 18-23 years, the sector offers one of the most attractive yet highly complex markets for private/foreign players. “India today has 560 million young people under the age of 25 and 225 million between the ages of 10 and 19,” explains Tharoor. “So for the next 40 years we should have a youthful working-age population” at a time when China and the broad industrialised world is ageing. The average age in China today is around 38, whereas in India it’s around 28. In 20 years, that gap will be much larger. “This could be a huge demographic dividend, provided we can educate our youth offering vocational training to some and university to others to equip them to take advantage of what the 21st-century global economy offers,” says Tharoor. “If we get it right, India becomes the workhorse of the world. If we get it wrong, there is nothing worse than unemployable and frustrated youth.”
Turning ideas into reality
India has established its strengths in Information Technology (IT), IT Enabled Services and Business Process Outsourcing sectors for a while now. Multinational corporations and home-grown companies are setting up R&D centres in the country hoping to tap into the vast workforce of India, which is committed to making their own lives better and contributing to a better tomorrow. “Already, companies like GE, Philips and IBM have more researchers in India than in their parent countries. Our R&D enterprises are now ambitiously moving towards fields such as IT, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, and biotechnology while keeping a strong hold on traditional spheres like Ayurveda,” says Tharoor. “However, other sectors also need to catch up. Since India’s universities are teaching institutions where little research is done, and research is done in small institutions where there is very little teaching, India is at an obvious disadvantage in the global university rankings. This must change. The Government plans to finance research clusters across the country.”
In 2012, the Union HRD ministry introduced in the Parliament the Universities for Research and Innovation Bill, which seeks to allow the government to set up 14 universities for research and innovation. They could be set up privately, or funded publicly or created through a public-private partnership. These institutions will be of national importance with the objective of achieving excellence in knowledge while building links between the academia and industry and conduct research on issues hampering the society at large. It is yet to be passed.
The process of incubating products up to the stage of a venture would need nurturing. A major global challenge is how to identify and nurture creative or out-of-the-box thinkers. “I agree with your concern that hardly anyone wants to take up a research career. But this is a global phenomenon. Even 1 per cent for India would mean about 3 million students. If we nurture them, this is a huge number. The Academy has developed a cheap model to identify science talent,” says Deo. Through the programme, ‘Discovering little scientists’, MAMB exposes school children to research culture at a very young age.
Indeed, current researchers have the responsibility to mentor and support aspiring researchers to navigate the constraints of a research career. “With the availability of internet and free online courses, students interested in research have information at their fingertips and they can actively network with researchers from around the world,” Choudaha reasons. Pai believes, “The teaching load needs to be reduced and pedagogy should change to include more project-based work rather than the current system of lectures and notes.”
All’s not lost
With the huge expansion of tertiary education sector, PhD scholars can look at rewarding academic and research-oriented careers. Moreover, there are numerous opportunities to publish their research papers and also write for newspapers and journals. “Domain knowledge of a specific field in science and technology, business, finance, economics, geography, political science, history, public administration, international relations, sociology, education and psychology can lead to work opportunities with consultants, government departments, industrial houses, multinationals and NGOs,” says Amrita Dass, founder-director of Institute for Career Studies, New Delhi.