Subhabrata’s Weblog

December 3, 2008

Who killed the Indian University?

Filed under: Current Affairs, Opinion, Rant — Tags: , , , , — genomewarrior @ 9:47 am

I was discussing with a friend of mine the other day about the impact of the IIT system on tertiary education in India. My contention was that the IIT system has caused the death of universities in India. He, ofcourse hotly contested the point. According to him, the IITs were a great idea at the time of independence, and have contributed immensely to the growth and development of the country. So I thought a little more about it, and the result of that thinking is the post below.

Now lets see if the Indian Institutes of Technology/Management/Information Technology/Fashion Technology/Drama/Design/what-have-you are really needed in this country and whether they have done more harm than good, as I think they have. It all started with the Indian Institutes of Technology. A result of a young socialist India’s admiration of the Soviet model of education. In fact, the first IIT was established at Kharagpur with help from the Government of the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1951. Other IITs followed, Mumbai in 1958, Kanpur and Chennai in 1961, and Delhi in 1963. Currently there are 13 Indian Institutes of Technology in various states in the country all covered under the Institutes of Technology Act of 1961 that declare these Institutions as Institutes of National Importance. The stated need for setting up the IIT system was to produce the scientists and engineers that a newly independent India needed for its development. It seems interesting that the decision makers deemed it necessary to create Institutes of National Importance like the IITs to impart education that could easily have been imparted simply by upgrading the existing universities to the status of Institutions of National Importance. The psychology behind the building of big Institutions with lofty ideals and huge amounts of public money as symbols of national pride is a distinguishing feature of socialist societies. Take the example of Mao Tse Tung’s destruction of the city of Beijing to build huge factories inside the city – his personal idea of, and a tribute to a worker’s paradise. In our case, we destroyed the University system by our own idea of socialized education. To really understand the basic evil of the Soviet system of higher education we have to realize that their society was based on collective ownership. The State owned everything, including your life. You individual growth and development as a person was essentially anti-state. An individual was simply a cog in the State machinery, everyone had his place in the society. You were not supposed to “think” as an individual, you were supposed to “do”. This led to their creation of highly specialized schools and universities dedicated to narrow disciplines — Institute of Mathematics, Institute of Genetics, Institute of Physical Research, the Medical Academies, and the list goes on and on. A highly centralized government controlled system put in place with the sole purpose of creating higly efficient workers for the country. This practice, of course created technically competent people, who were experts in their field of work — the Russian mathematicians and physicists for example, but did that system work? Were these people anything more than well programmed robots who were not good at anything but what they were trained for? I would be interested to know the real statistics. But their immediate success in the Soviet society was visible to everyone. They had great scientists, excellent engineers, efficient workers, but no philosophers, no independent artists, or film makers, or writers. But the quality of their engineers was probably what impressed Jawaharlal Nehru the most. He, after all had the responsibility of bringing India up to speed on development and infrastructure post independence. So the idea of setting up a series of engineering schools must have sounded good to him, and he went ahead and built the first series of IITs – Kharagpur, Bombay, Delhi, Kanpur and Madras. There is no doubt that at the time of Independence there was an urgent need for skilled technical manpower in order for India to build itself, and there was a very real need for the Government to focus on technical education. There is also no doubt about the fact that, given the stringent selection criteria, the IITs got the best students in the country who after graduation went on to lead successful professional lives. Given the socialist bent of mind, our leaders, possibly forgetting the original thoughts that went into the setting up of IITs started establishing other specialized Institutes and the Indian Institutes of Management, National Institute of Design, National Institute of Fashion Technology followed over the years. In parallel, the University system of this country went from bad to worse. Bad management, lack of funds, archaic rules, politics, all contributed to the rot. This asymmetry also led to an asymmetric perception of college education among the media and the public in general. In a country and at a time when good jobs were few, not getting into an IIT meant you were a failure even before you started.

From the Universities’ standpoint, the problems were compounded by the fact that in addition to the policy of establishing specialized undergraduate schools the Government also set up specialized research Institutes directly under the control of funding agencies. So we had the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, The Department of Atomic Energy, The Department of Biotechnology, The Department of Science and Technology, all funding agencies under various ministries running a bunch of their own Institutes specializing in narrow research domains. One would agree that there are research problems that need coordinated effort of many people, and substantial financial inputs. Setting up small Institutes dedicated to specific questions of importance is in itself not a bad idea. So where is the problem? The problem lies in the fact that these institutes are not connected to universities. They are far better funded than university departments, and thus have excellent research facilities, but the scientists who work there are not required to teach. Most of them being situated away from universities, their scientists and students have limited interaction with people from other disciplines. There is little exchange of ideas and views in the free flowing manner that is at the heart of innovative research. The result? Our entire scientific establishment is engaged in a “me too” research program where the really radical and original ideas come from the west and we simply fill in the gaps. The lack of innovation in science is evident in the example of the use of Zebrafish as a genetic model system for biological research. Zebrafish, a native of the Ganges needed George Streisinger of the University of Oregon to be studied in detail and be used as a genetic model. Our experience with research on medicinal plants is another example. In the humanities, we need a William Dalrymple to teach us about the history of the Deccan, or Delhi. There are many economic and social factors involved this sad sate of affairs, but one of the most prominent of these factors is the utter lack of a vibrant univerisity system fostering unfettered interaction and exchange of ideas among people of widely disparate interests and expertise. All this affects another important part of the higher education system of the country – Graduate School. We are creating more PhDs than any other country in the world with the possible exception of China, but are our PhDs really worth the title of “Doctor of Philosophy”? I am not sure. Are our research institutes producing loads of doctorates who are nothing but highly trained technicians or are we producing leaders and thinkers who can cross boundaries of discipline and think creatively? I think our policy makers need to ask this question to themselves.

So what is the result of this long policy of specialization and fragmentation? Our leaders would have us believe that our country is progressing and India is shining because we have a huge pool of English speaking individuals who can program a computer and run a PCR reaction. What they will not admit even to themselves is that all this lopsided development comes at a price. In mundane terms, this preference for quantity over quality has led to a huge workforce trained in a specific skill set and completely dependent on a certain set of industries in order to remain employed. In a deeper sense, this has led to the slow, but definite dilution of the cultural and intellectual vibrancy of the country. We seem to be well on the path to becoming a country of unthinking automatons who do as they are told, trapped in our own little intellectual boxes. We seem to have forgotten our own historical contribution to higher education by way of inventing the model of multidisciplinary university system with Taxila. The path of higher education chosen at the infancy of the Indian republic has without doubt helped India reach a position of strength in the world. But everything has to evolve, what may have been relevant earlier may loose its relevance with time as society advances. For the country to really move forward, there is a need to rethink and reform the higher education system. We need to bring the University back! Unfortunately the government seems to think otherwise. They have gone ahead and established a bunch of more IITs taking the total to 13 (and 6 more planned). And as if that was not enough, they have started a chain of Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research! It seems we did not have enough university departments good enough to teach basic sciences to undergraduates. As I have mentioned earlier, specialized institutes, a misplaced and misguided priority in the first place, has now largely lost relevance in today’s society where people with new and “unconventional” combination of skill sets are often the drivers of progress. This country needs well rounded individuals who, while being trained in a particular discipline, are at the same time aware of their society and open to exchange of ideas.

In my “ideal” education and research policy, I would first increase funding to Universities and at the same time bring about changes in their academic and administrative structure. Over time, the universities will be run by academics who are also proven administrators. I would expect these institutions to be run in a democratic fashion with no interference from outside. Ultimately, funding to universities will be based on their performance. The Indian Institutes of technology will  be upgraded to the level of central universities and be treated as such. National laboratories and Institutes will be attached to universities with scientists having the option to teach if they so wish. I would ofcourse encourage researchers to teach undergraduates, which would mean that the academic staff of the universities will be of two kinds — research scientists, who choose not to teach in the class room but take graduate students for research work, and faculty, who choose to teach along with doing their research. The latter will ofcourse be more difficult but I would wish to make it more rewarding too. I would encourage private sector participation in higher education and research with tax benefits to corporates and private individuals who choose to support academic research in purely non-applied fields like history, philosophy, art or the basic sciences. Setting up of private universities will be encouraged subject to their satisfying stringent criteria (I will talk about higher education as an industry sector in a later post) to ensure quality. The idea is to turn universities into centers of knowledge rather than just degree granting bodies, places where knowledge is not only disseminated, but also generated, where students and teachers alike benefit from their mutual interactions without boundaries or restrictions. Universities in my “ideal” society will be as sensitive to social change as they will be drivers of that change.

It is high time the policy makers stopped and did a serious analysis of the higher education and research system in this country. The whole system needs to be reformed if we want to graduate (no pun intended) from being a “developing country” to being a “developed country” in the real sense of the term.

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