5. Make India a hub for Innovation

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THE DETOX: 12 Steps To Fix India’s Economy – A New Monthly Series

Long-term prosperity will be guaranteed only by investing in higher education and research centres

By Jaithirth Rao

Photo: Tushar Mane

IN THE long term, the economic prosperity of any country is linked to the way its human capital is developed in order to encourage innovation and progress. As wages go up, productivity can only be increased through innovation. At this time, we are a nation of order-takers, importers of ideas and inventions. We are not the primary producers of new knowledge. While we can and will achieve substantial growth by exploiting our current low-wage environment, this process cannot go on indefinitely. Even as we follow this strategy, we need to be simultaneously investing in higher education, research and development, and in the overall rubric of idea-generation and the creation of cutting-edge knowledge.

A few years after the 1857 uprising, the British established the universities of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. From the outset, the rulers were clear as to what should be the role played by Indian universities. They were required to perform only three functions: to set the syllabus, conduct examinations and award degrees. Please note that there was no emphasis at all on research or creation of new knowledge. Clearly, as far as the British were concerned, Indian universities would remain factories churning out degreeholders. New knowledge, including about India, would be created at Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh, not in India. In one sense, Indian universities have lived up to Lord Dalhousie’s vision well. We must have the most efficient examination assembly lines in the world, and we have produced and continue to produce the best candidates as far as cracking examinations go. But research, and extending the boundaries of knowledge, has not been the forte of our universities.

Unfortunately, Independence did not change the situation. We created the University Grants Commission (UGC), which specifies how many years’ experience is needed before an assistant professor can be promoted to an associate professor, how much salary and travelling allowance was due to professors at different hierarchical levels, and so on. Flexibility and autonomy, which are pre-requisites for running successful institutions, were undermined. Ironically, Calcutta University vice-chancellor Ashutosh Mukherjee’s decision to offer the Palit Chair in Physics to CV Raman in the pre-UGC days would not have met with UGC approval. The history of physics might have been poorer if the UGC had been around in the 1930s. Prior to Independence, several efforts were made by Indians to build research-oriented institutions despite active British discouragement and hostility. JN Tata and the Maharaja of Mysore founded the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, which still remains a world-class university. Madan Mohan Malaviya and Annie Besant founded the Banaras hindu University, which tried to evolve a universal multi-disciplinary approach to learning. After a hiatus of decline, this varsity is trying to regain its past glory. One can only wish it well. Mukherjee took steps to create an ambience that favoured cutting-edge research in Calcutta University. During his short span as Andhra University vice-chancellor, S Radhakrishnan pioneered some innovative efforts. But all these efforts remained insufficient.

We produce the best candidates as far as cracking examinations go… R&D has never been the forte of Indian varsities

JAWAHARLAL NEHRU understood the importance of research and new knowledge creation. Hence the importance he attached to the creation of IITs and the CSIR laboratory network. At a time when India was considerably poorer, Nehru made sure that we found the resources and more importantly, bestowed attention on building an institutional infrastructure for higher education and research. Unfortunately for the country, Nehru decided that the older universities could not be reformed (many were under the control of the politicians in charge of state governments) and decided to “solve” the problem by setting up new IITs. The IITs have done an admirable job of training outstanding talent. IIT alumni have been responsible for considerable innovation and economic growth both in the US, and along the Indo-US corridor. While in recent years, research has picked up at these institutions, they still have a considerable way to go before being classified as truly world-class research institutions. Nehru was also instrumental in starting a series of research laboratories under the aegis of CSIR. Unfortunately, these labs were divorced from teaching institutions. Everyone knows that good research requires a large number of undergraduate and graduate students, if nothing else, to do the grunt work supporting senior researchers. The flaw in the CSIR structure has been the absence of students. Some corrections have been made as now several CSIR labs do have PhD students. Another flaw in the structure of IITs, IIMs, CSIR labs has been that they are “academic silos” and not inter-disciplinary universities.

New knowledge is usually created at the intersection of disciplines. My friend Padmakar Kulkarni, a BARC-trained scientist, works in Dallas. his research group is trying to develop an organic molecule that will cross the blood-brain barrier, and stick to brain proteins that cause Alzheimer’s disease. The molecule has to have a radioactive isotope in order to be seen on the next-generation PET scanner. His team requires the services of an organic chemist, a nuclear chemist, an electronics engineer, a neurologist and a neurosurgeon. To set up such a team in Chennai or Mumbai would be both physically and organisationally difficult to the point of being impossible. The medical, engineering and science colleges are each several kilometres away from each other and are distinct organisations with heavy doses of bureaucracy. The idea that they could possibly co-operate is simply not on the cards. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has gained distinction by exploring issues at the intersection of economics and philosophy. At Harvard, he holds two appointments — one as a professor of economics and another as a professor of philosophy. The Delhi University philosophy department, given that they follow UGC rules, will not find it proper to offer Sen a position. the new field of behavioural economics requires work in economics and in experimental psychology. Again, in India, the silo rule would apply and the faculties of these two departments probably don’t even talk to each other, let alone work together. The silo effect is also seen in the situation where economics professors at IIMs are frustrated because not enough economics PhD students turn up at what is primarily a business school. We have taken the silo principle to extremes. We have a Film and television Institute. To think of a world-class film teaching and research institution without top-notch departments in sociology, history and computer animation makes little sense. The lack of a multi-disciplinary university umbrella makes these specialist institutes not the best place to create new knowledge. We have an Institute of foreign Trade — does that mean they will not teach anything about domestic trade? We have an Institute of rural management, one of Infrastructure management and one of Infrastructure finance management. Such narrow silos can lead to creating ‘trade schools’ where skills can be acquired but not environments where research in new cross-disciplinary areas can be pursued.

Illustrations: Anand Naorem

The other curse of our educational institutions is that they are denied autonomy. The argument made by the HRD ministry is that since the government has provided the land and funding, it has a right to impose its rules and views on universities and institutes of higher learning. The choice of the executive head of the institution is also retained by the government. This argument is a fallacious one. In medieval Europe, universities were granted autonomy usually by royal charter and were run by groups of academics. If the king gave an endowment, then they named the institution King’s college. But in all other respects, the institution was autonomous. This is why the European universities became powerhouses creating new knowledge. In America, in the Dartmouth College case, the judiciary ruled in favour of university autonomy and against State control. The case of John Rockefeller and the University of Chicago is more interesting. Having endowed the university with money, Rockefeller refused to get involved in anything more. He did not visit the university and did not tell the president, the fellows and the professors how they should run it, who they should admit, what they should teach, how professors should be promoted and so on. The denial of autonomy to our universities is in keeping with the traditions of the British Raj. Our erstwhile rulers were scared that universities would emerge as hotbeds of sedition, and in any event they were not keen that much productive research should be done in India. Hence “controlling” the universities suited them. Unfortunately, the central and state governments in free India have continued with this tradition. Giving land or money should not become the excuse to convert a university into a government department.

Giving land or money should not become the excuse to convert a university into a government department

It is fashionable these days to argue that private universities can be the answer to our problems. While private varsities should be encouraged, we shouldn’t forget that no country has progressed economically without having a good publicly funded university system. Even in the US, Land Grant Colleges, the University of California System, SUNY and the University of Texas System have been key catalysts in the pursuit of knowledge. Private entry should not become the reason for public universities abdicating their important role. I use the term “public universities” advisedly. They can be State-funded, but need not and shouldn’t be State-controlled. They should be autonomous. Only in a free atmosphere can genuine research thrive; then and only then will new knowledge emerge.

WE ALREADY have an infrastructure of IITs, IIMs, ISIs, IIFTs and a large number of CSIR labs. All of them have plenty of land. And let’s not forget that land is emerging as a major constraint these days. All have decent brands. Why not grant them “complete autonomy”, give them guaranteed grants over a 10-year period, rather than hold them to ransom each year, and ask them to become fullfledged multi-disciplinary universities over time? After all, MIT and Carnegie Mellon started as engineering colleges and went on to become broad institutions of learning. The same should be possible in India. If we do this, I would wager that in the next 15 years, we would have a few Nobel laureates who would be professors in our universities. We would finally be creating new knowledge rather than being importers of ideas, concepts, innovations and inventions. The crucial thing is that autonomy will have to be real. The HRD ministry shouldn’t try to get back powers by a sleight of hand. And this effort will have to be in addition to encouragement provided to private and foreign universities who are welcome, but who cannot be expected to play the same role as a well-funded, autonomous public university system can and will.

Economic issues are usually discussed in the media primarily in terms of taxes, monetary policy, interest rates, stock market returns and so on. These are important in the short and medium term. But in the long run, no society can become rich and prosperous if its human capital levels are not of a high quality. Sustaining economic growth on the basis of imitation and low wages is an excellent short-term strategy. But after that phase ends, we need to be generating ideas and innovations of our own. Then and only then can the hard-won prosperity be retained and the next round of economic growth kicked off. Consider the case of South Korea, which imports iron from India and coal from Australia — but makes the best and the cheapest steel in the world. The achievement is a tribute not to minerals in the ground, but to Korean human capital. We would do well to pay homage to Korea, as we refashion our university system.

One of India’s foremost right-wing economic thinkers, Jaithirth Rao is founder and chairman of Value and Budget Housing Corporation, a company in the affordable housing space.
jerry@jerryrao.net

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