The Rot in the Groves

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University-laboratory

The prestigious Nature magazine in a recent issue has painted a grim picture of the Indian government’s treatment of academics in general and research in particular. It says that the country has entered an era of “headless labs and mounting budgetary cuts”. The overall scenario of Indian universities is quixotic indeed: they are thriving profitably, even as they figure almost nowhere internationally, compelling the question: Is there anything right with Indian academics?

A close look reveals a mostly unedifying picture. As if the bewildering class divide that gawks at the groves of academe was not bad enough, the message from a primary sounding board is as unambiguous as ever. Like earlier years, this year too no Indian university made it to the list of top 100 most prestigious global universities in the latest “world reputation ranking” by Times Higher Education (THE).

The rankings for 2015 based on an invitation-only survey of senior academics, placed Harvard University at the top, followed by University of Cambridge and University of Oxford in second and third places respectively. They also show that the UK now has 12 out of the 100 most renowned higher education institutions in the world (up from 10 last year). The UK’s two strongest performers, the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge, have improved their positions. The US remains dominant in the annual rankings, with 43 out of the top 100 universities and eight out of the top 10, although the total number of US institutions is down from the 46 it had last year.

For the fifth consecutive year, the rankings highlight an elite group of eight US and UK “superbrands” that hold a significant lead over the rest. Although the order has changed over the years, the institutions in the top eight have remained constant: Harvard University, University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, Princeton University and Yale University.

Asia’s best performer, the University of Tokyo, slipped one place to 12th. China’s top institution, Tsinghua University, climbed 10 places to 26th, and Beijing University climbed from 41st to 32nd place.

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As academician R Prasad points out in a detailed examination of the Indian academic scene, “This does not mean that there have not been successes amid a litany of resounding failures. For instance, India successfully sent a spacecraft (Mangalyaan) to Mars in its first attempt. But the country has failed to produce any path-breaking research or Nobel laureates for several decades. And in all likelihood, India may not produce one in the near future unless some dramatic changes are brought about,” he said.

The government’s recent decision to dissolve the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister has come under scathing attack from academics. They say that the move amounts to cutting off a crucial link that has served science and the scientific community well. “Unless we have an orchestrated plan, well thought-out by competent scientists, we could be in a bad state in the next ten years,” said Bharat Ratna awardee CNR Rao recently.

According to Prasad, there are inherent systemic problems that plague the research environment in the country. Less than 1 percent of the total students enrolled in higher education are pursuing PhD. The overall quality of doctoral studies in many institutes is also questionable. The quality of research in higher education institutes is diluted because of the shortage of faculty and poor teaching standards. Even at the IITs, 20 percent of faculty posts remain vacant. Nodal agencies like the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Indian Council of Medical Research(ICMR) have been struggling in the absence of effective stewardship. The same is the case with several other national laboratories and central universities. The Department of Science and Technology (DST) got its secretary only in January this year, eight long months after the earlier incumbent retired.

The first and foremost change that necessarily has to be undertaken is a complete “overhauling” of the University Grants Commission (UGC). “Hackneyed ordinances and rules set by the ugc have stifled the spirit of academic excellence and hampered institutional flexibility,” says a professor at Delhi University. She adds, “the credibility of the ugc has been tarnished further by the controversial bureaucrats it has at its helm”.

According to existing data, though India produces 9,000 PhD graduates a year in science and technology, the number pales in comparison with the country’s population. On the other hand, the US produces four times the number of PhD graduates despite having one-fourth of India’s population. The assessment of the quality of Indian PhDs is also uniformly poor.

There is no dearth of talent in India. However, there is a dearth of successful innovators and researchers because, for talents to fulfil their potential, a charged intellectual environment that nurtures, mentors and drives them is necessary.

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REPORT CARD

♦ India’s research budget, which had been static for about a decade at a paltry 1 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), has been cut further. In contrast, China’s allocation for research is almost 2 percent of its GDP

♦ Only 4 percent of the total Research & Development (R&D) expenditure in the country is from higher educational institutions, putting India at the lowest amongst its global peers

♦ India has 7.8 scientists per 1,000 population compared to 180.66 in Canada, 139.16 in Russia, 53.13 in Korea and 21.15 in the US

♦ Though more number of patents are being filed in India, it is still behind its Asian peers

♦ India has only 2,00,000 full time researchers — four researchers per 10,000 labour force. This is low compared with China (18 researchers per 10,000 labour force) and Brazil (seven researchers per 10,000 labour force). With six researchers per 10,000 labour force, even Kenya has a higher proportion of researchers than India

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