July 25, 2020
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Under Laboratory Conditions

Basic systemic changes are needed to build world-class research institutions in India

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Under Laboratory Conditions
Illustration by Saahil
Under Laboratory Conditions

This annual ranking of professional colleges ends with the IITs again dominating the engineering landscape, while other streams show stability in rankings. As Dipankar Gupta observes, not even our IITs are ranked in the top 300 institutions of higher learning in the world. One must wonder where our institutions fall short. A breezy explanation is that our professional institutions are geared to providing employable graduates, and not so much for res­earch. I don’t believe this, as these same places have excellent academics. Our profe­ssional colleges have the burden of going bey­ond research and creating ind­­­­us­­try-­ready graduates.

Internationally, great academic institutions have strong traditions of excellence, focused, goal-oriented academics and research, and well-funded research programmes. They att­ract, reward and retain great academics, who are selected for their research prowess. These academics are capable of inspiring the next generation. These institutions choose students carefully, and demand high standards.

There are five key areas we need to look at to assess our institutions: infrastructure and funding, goal-setting, academic and research orientation, quality of academics and the support it gets, and student orientation and quality.

We need to examine if institutional goals have a strong orientation to R&D, and whether funding is tied to these. Are correct goals set, and are institutions judged on their delivery?

Infrastructure, goal-setting, academic research orientation, quality of research, quality of and support to academics and student quality are vital areas for Indian institutions.

In addition, does the quality of academics qua­lify them for top international ranks? Do we pay more attention to their certificates, or is ade­quate attention paid to their research credentials? Do we demand strong research proposals from them, or do we overload them with teaching? Are they adequa­tely rewarded for res­earch? Do they handle research students, or primarily undergraduates?

To develop strong institutions, we need to set the right goals, and then build teaching and research orientation. We need academics of research orientation, and then free them to do and inspire research.

Once this is in place, we then need to address the quality of students, and what we demand from them as undergrads. Students entering PG and doctoral programmes must be selected based on their potential for excellence.

This kind of system would need a revamp, starting at schools. Our students are used to high scores, churned with aid from tutors, not schools. The system is set up to crack exams, rather than learn subjects. Students with an int­ernational baccalaureate (class 12) are superior on subject knowledge to their Indian counterparts. The 10th and 12th board standards need to be consistent across India and more knowledge-based rather than model answer-based.

This process, if supported at the undergraduate level, and followed through at the PG and doctoral levels, would result in an overall uplift of the academic ecosystem.

The Indian system seems to work because of extreme competition for admissions, ensuring high student quality. This is supported by the fact that industry recruits them as much for their basic quality as for their training. If this is sustainable in an incr­easingly thought- and inn­ovation-driven world is anybody’s guess.

(Balaji is MD, Drshti Strategic Research Services)

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