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Straight Talk: Indian government must limit research to select institutions

PM Narendra Modi recently said that research should be pushed to state universities. Here Dr. Pushkar argues against such a move.
BY Pushkar |   10-01-2019

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[Writing in these pages, I argued earlier that the “Indian government must immediately make research and publishing optional for all teachers except for those at teaching-cum-research institutions and research centres.” However, while speaking at the inauguration of the 106th Indian Science Congress in early January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for pushing “research in our colleges and state universities.” In this article, I disagree with the need and utility of doing so. Instead, I argue that the government should limit research to select higher education institutions, both public and private.]

Speaking at the inauguration of the 106th Indian Science Congress meet in Phagwara recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi correctly stated that India’s “strengths in research and development are built on the backbone of our national labs, central universities, IITs, IISc, TIFR and ISERs.” He went on to say that “over 95 percent of our students go to state universities and colleges where research is still limited” and “a strong research eco-system must be developed in these universities and colleges.” Finally, the prime minister said that he would call upon the Prime Minister’s Science, Technology and Innovation Council to find ways to “push research in our colleges and state universities.”

There is no doubt that elite research and teaching institutions such as the central universities, the IITs, IISc, TIFR and IISc contribute immensely to the nation’s research and development. It is also true that, despite improvements in recent years, the quantity and quality of research produced by India’s universities compares unfavourably with that of leading world powers, including China. But the way forward, contrary to what the prime minister said, is not by pushing research at state universities and colleges, most of which are in a broken state due to poor funding since the past several decades, widespread corruption, shortage of faculty, even higher shortages of research-capable faculty due to years of faculty hiring practices that are based on everything-but-merit, unequipped libraries and laboratories, overall poor infrastructure and other ailments. Indeed, the government’s efforts over the last decade to promote the cause of research by insisting on research and publications from teachers across elite institutions as well as state universities and colleges has made India the leading producer of fake journals – where almost anyone can literally publish anything for a small fee and within a very short period – with teachers from Indian colleges and universities among the leading contributors.

The government needs to consider other policy options to strengthen the country’s research eco-system and improve its overall research and development. But before that, a correction to what the prime minister said regarding the numbers of students who attend state universities and colleges in necessary.

The total enrolment in various higher education institutions stands at 36.6 million. However, 95% of Indian students do not attend state universities and colleges. According to the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) 2017-18 report, there are 903 universities and 39,050 colleges in the country of which 343 universities are privately managed i.e. 38%. Among colleges, 78% are privately managed. Furthermore, 67.3% of all students attend private colleges. Since the first AISHE report 2010-11, the total share of the numbers of private universities and colleges and the percentage share of students attending such institutions has increased, showing the declining importance of state universities and colleges. As discussed a little later, this has clear implications for designing policies to promote research.

The Indian government must consider the following policy options to promote the cause of research in preference to pushing research at colleges and state universities.

First, the University Grants Commission (UGC) needs to tweak the Academic Performance Indicators (APIs) so that research and publishing is made optional for college teachers i.e. those teaching undergraduate students only. The primary obligation of college teachers is to teach and they must not be saddled with research. The other reason for making research optional for college teachers is that most work in colleges with poor or deficient infrastructure, whether at public or private institutions. Finally, most college-level teachers are poorly qualified for research, because they are poorly-trained, or because they were not hired on the basis of their research capabilities but teaching skills, or because they were simply hired for reasons other than merit.

In assigning college teachers with the task of primarily teaching, it must also be kept in mind that nearly 80% of India’s 36.6 million students are at the undergraduate level. These students need their teachers to teach and prepare them for their future and for most that future is outside academia.

Second, after freeing college teachers from the compulsion of carrying out research, the government must identify a select number of state universities which have a good-enough record of research and support them. It is well known that state-run universities in some states or some state universities in different parts of the country have done fairly well on research despite limitations of funds and infrastructure. These universities must be supported with additional funding and with research grants. However, the majority of state universities should be categorized as teaching-focused institutions and supported only to the extent that is needed for running bachelor’s or master’s programmes in various disciplines.

Third, as is evident from the AISHE reports, the importance of public institutions – in terms of total number of student enrolments - will decline further over time and that of private institutions increase. Therefore, and this point needs to be made with great emphasis, private institutions cannot be neglected or sidelined as far as realizing the research potential of Indian’s higher education sector is concerned. While it is true that most private colleges and universities are a scam, more than a handful of them have emerged as credible over time. They have hired research-capable faculty and intend to make a mark as teaching-cum-research institutions. A few among them have been or will be selected as Institutions of Eminence and become eligible for research grants from the government.  But many others which will not make the cut will need government support for research. India has reached a point where the large and growing size of private institutions has made it necessary for the government to extend its support to the best of them. Select private institutions, much in the same way as select state universities, must become part of the government’s efforts to boost research.

Pushkar (@PushHigherEd) is director, The International Centre Goa. The views expressed here are personal.



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