Discover Studying Abroad

Straight Talk: 3 Key Concerns in the Implementation of GIAN

India and the US recently signed off on the Global Initiative of Academic Networks (GIAN), which aims to connect centrally recognized Indian Universities with American scholars and institutions. While a cause for great optimism in most quarters, it also evokes concerns. In this article, Dr. Pushkar explores three major drags in the Indian educational infrastructure which can check the spread of knowledge.
BY Pushkar |   04-05-2015

President Barack Obama’s visit to India earlier this year provided a suitably appropriate occasion for India and the US to sign off on the Global Initiative of Academic Networks (GIAN). Widely attributed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, GIAN is designed to allow India to host up to 1,000 American academics each year for short periods—ranging from a few weeks to several months—to teach and research at central universities, the IITs, the IIMs and other premier institutions. The expectation is that our elite institutions, and more broadly the country’s higher education sector, will benefit from GIAN scholars in a variety of ways – in the adoption of new methods of pedagogy; infusing creativity and innovation-driven learning and professional rigour; boosting research in cutting edge technologies; and building stronger academic networks between India and the US.

There were some initial criticisms that GIAN was too US-centric, but it was subsequently reported that the government planned to develop deeper academic ties with higher education institutions worldwide under the same scheme. And so it was. Canada was brought on board for GIAN during Mr Modi’s recent visit to the country.

While the Princeton mathematician Manjul Bhargava, (the first person of Indian origin to win the prestigious Fields medal), has agreed to become the face and facilitator of GIAN, the government will require much more than the support and leadership of a renowned academic to make the programme work well.

Overall, it is possible to identify at least three broad areas of concern.

The first important concern regarding GIAN is execution. The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) and participating universities need to coordinate GIAN with a fair degree of competence so that it can achieve what it is designed to - helping connect knowledge communities in the US, Canada and elsewhere to India for the benefit of our knowledge sector. At the moment, it seems that MHRD will need to do better in improving its coordinating capacities and other related tasks. For example, the ministry reportedly finalized the all-too-important issue of salaries and benefits for visiting US faculty only a week before President Obama’s visit, that too after the intervention of the prime minister. The MHRD would be advised to avoid such late ‘fixes’ since it conveys to partner countries and institutions our lack of preparedness for what is clearly a major government initiative or worse, a lack of intent and purpose.

A second big issue of concern is the extent to which faculty and students at Indian universities are, or will be, receptive to new ways of knowing, teaching and doing research. This is not a trivial matter. The academic community at our best institutions is already connected to higher education institutions abroad in greater or lesser degrees, and at least approximately aware of the best practices in teaching, research and administration. This is in part due to the fact that more Indians are earning their PhDs abroad and returning home to take up faculty positions. Many more India-trained academics too are getting the opportunity to spend time abroad, whether on short assignments or longer ones.

However, despite growing awareness about a long list of ‘best practices’ among the professoriate, few of these practices are adopted at our institutions due to administrative obstacles, political meddling, the stubbornness of the professoriate and other factors. As such, there remains an enormous gap in the ‘academic culture’ at our best institutions and theirs.

Among the many weaknesses in our ‘academic culture’ which come in the way of adopting the ‘best practices’ in academia, the following are particularly problematic: the routine political meddling by political leaders of the kind that demands and receives subservience of university leaders (also see below); the unwillingness of university leaders themselves to implement reforms; the culture of hierarchy in professional and personal relations among faculty members based on seniority and among faculty and students which severely limits their receptiveness to new ways of knowing and doing things; the practice of hiring new faculty based on ethnicity and personal ties; the stubborn focus on teaching and administration at the expense of research among large sections of the faculty even at premier institutions; and other factors. Together, these pose enormous obstacles to the success of GIAN.

A third challenge, perhaps a bigger one than others, is whether government officials and university administrators, not just faculty and students, are willing to learn and adopt best global practices in higher education, whether from the Americans or others.

In its current form and details, GIAN seems to be entirely focused on academic matters, and on the professoriate and students to the exclusion of administrators, whether within the university system such as vice-chancellors, directors, deans and others, or outside, notably the MHRD, University Grants Commission (UGC), etc. As everybody knows, even though academics and students constitute the heart and soul of higher education, they play at best a minor role in setting the rules or in determining how higher education institutions are run.

It is the MHRD which rules supreme, and it asserts its powers on matters large and small pertaining to higher education, whether it is the selection of vice-chancellors and directors,or deciding upon rejecting or implementing a given set of reforms. The University Grants Commission (UGC) and other organizations follow the diktat of the MHRD. Similarly, vice-chancellors and directors of central-government funded institutions, whose tenure in office is tied to their loyalty and support to MHRD, do the same.

What all this means in the context of GIAN is that whatever good the professoriate and students may learn from GIAN scholars, if that requires administrative or institutional changes at their home institutions, then it is eventually the political bosses who must agree to those changes.

Consider this simple example. A professor at a half-decent university abroad, even a newly-appointed faculty member, is free to prepare his own course outline and content as she sees fit. This is considered a good practice because it gives the professor the flexibility to make changes in the course on an annual basis based on developments in that particular subject area. In India, we commonly hear about course content remaining frozen over several years! Now, the MHRD has plans to introduce a common syllabus across all central universities, as if faculty members even at central universities are incapable of doing the job!

Under ‘Indian conditions’, nearly everything that our faculty and students learn from GIAN scholars or otherwise can be practiced only if it is approved by the MHRD. In other words, the heavily circumscribed autonomy that India’s universities enjoy in practice limits the adoption of ideas and practices that the professoriate would like to see implemented to improve the quality of teaching and research. If this does not change so that the government comes to play the limited but extremely important role of facilitator, it is quite possible that GIAN may do nothing more than help thousands of Americans explore India as tourists rather than educate India as academics.

Pushkar is an Asst Professor at the Dept of Humanities & Social Sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa.



Can't Read  
Enter Above Code:


Sign Up for our newsletter

Sign Up for latest updates and Newsletter