While discussing how successfully Indian higher education is “globalizing”, a colleague pointed out a remarkable anomaly. At any stage of school education, an Indian child is taught far more than the product of an American or British school, and is likely to outdo the latter in sheer breadth of knowledge. A simple test can be conducted by weighing the respective school-bags. Often, this disparity persists into undergraduate education. Some of our best colleges teach more, and teach better, than the average in the United States of America. And yet, as soon as this stage of routine teaching is over and we arrive at the rather more challenging graduate studies, it is the Indian who aspires to be taught in America or Britain, and not the other way round. Our learning curve rises much more steeply than everyone else’s until about the age of twenty, takes a sharp downturn thereafter, and eventually drops below everyone else’s. At the end of the day, it is the easy-going American who wins the Nobel Prize, and not the industrious Indian.
What makes the two systems singularly different' The answer, at first sight, seems simple enough. The American student goes on to win the Nobel Prize because it is feasible for her to choose a university where she will have the opportunity to be taught by a Nobel Prize winner. The Indian loses steam because our universities are filled with people who, with few exceptions, are poor researchers. In short, the singular difference between the two systems is in the level of synergy between teaching and research. Reputed universities worldwide excel precisely because they understand that research builds quality.
No doubt, many among the university faculty in India are industrious teachers. But it takes more than industriousness to inspire a student to use education creatively, and generate new ideas and applications. It requires the ability to play around with key ideas and tools. This is the difference that a good researcher makes in a university department. This ability may be, to some extent, intrinsic. But to be used effectively, it needs to be worked on, perfected, and practised. Originality is a deliberate and painstakingly cultivated quality of the mind. A university department that hopes to produce fine researchers has to have a sufficient number among its teachers whom the field acknowledges to be fine researchers. In the classroom, they are not necessarily “good” teachers, and yet they alone can stimulate imagination, reveal intellectual possibilities, and suggest projects that are bold but achievable. Their own work-routine, moreover, illustrates what it takes in practice to become a researcher. A department with just good teachers will be no better than average. A department with only good researchers will be more like a laboratory than a classroom. The departments that stand out in the world have both in good measure.
This is where the best Indian universities fall behind the world average. There are pathetically few good researchers left among the university faculty in India. Indian universities never really excelled in research. Even the best departments in the country, in their heyday, were better at coaching students for graduate studies abroad than at producing researchers themselves. No less than the Delhi School of Economics, arguably the best school for economics teaching in India, is an example. And yet, twenty years ago, the system understood the need for synergy between teaching and research somewhat better than it does today. There are signs that today it is much less sensitive to this need, even deliberately indifferent to bringing research back into the academic agenda.
What danger are we in' If we continue to run a university system with too little originality, the system gets driven towards producing assembly-line training, something comparable to the training the neighbourhood software shop offers. Like the software shop, the university may produce saleable skills. And yet, these are skills that thousands of other teaching shops worldwide offer too. Devaluing research and originality, in short, is the road to reducing our universities to irrelevance in the world. It is a recipe to kill their hope to establish a brand for quality. For, quality needs synergy between teaching and research. It needs good researchers to teach a subject.
The symptoms of a devaluation of quality abound all around us. Recruitment and promotion rules in the university system have become singularly incapable of recognizing quality and creating positive incentives for world-class research. A bright economics PhD appearing for a lecturership today will usually have much better-paying offers from the corporate or media sectors. To attract such people to teaching, the system needs to offer something more than salary. But the average department hardly has the freedom to offer her incentives like a good office, research support, increments, and so on. No wonder that the inflow of good students into doctoral programmes in India has dwindled to dangerously low levels.
In several states, an implicit or explicit embargo on teaching jobs has been in force for some time. In these states, an increasing proportion of teaching is being contracted out to temporary teachers for pathetically low fees. Forget non-monetary incentives, even steady jobs and reasonable payments are obsolete ideas at the entry level. What quality of teaching do we get for such returns' As recruitment into regular faculty stops, research teams keep breaking up due to retirement or turnover, without the department being able to rebuild teams as they wish. A senior researcher gets no special incentives — a good office, a secretary, a reduced teaching load, a book-grant, or some say in recruitment, for example.
A department cannot promote someone on research without going through an exhaustingly complicated procedure. The so-called merit promotion scheme is an anachronism, it is a promotion system in which the last thing to matter is “merit”. The lecture fees offered by the University Grants Commission to university teachers for, say, taking refresher courses is shamefully low, even as some of them are leading figures in their field. The entire university system keeps reminding the better-quality researchers, “forget special favours, this culture of poor salaries, rigid rules, levelling-down, cheapness, and indifference is what you are really worth”.
Where do we go from here' One ongoing step is a kind of credit-rating initiative. But what good will rating a lot of bad apples do' What we need to improve is the quality of the apples is to create strong in-built rewards for research within these organizations. We need incentives along global lines, to bring tough world standards in, and to apply these standards to the senior and junior alike. What could these rules be' Let fresh PhDs with two international publications in a field get more money and facilities. Create an inventory of all senior teachers in the university system, grade them strictly by their international publications and presence, by their ongoing research record, and then make lecture-fees conditional on these grades. Currently, research funding is given by projects. Give research grants by people and department as well. Create a few contractual positions available to each department that has a credible research record. These free positions will not be subject to rules, scales and quotas, and can be filled by the department alone.
We know that the Indian market reforms in recent years have been a success and a failure. Success, because a lot of goods and services we can produce with cheap labour, from textiles to software, have found large outlets abroad. Failure, because in the process India has acquired an image for poor-quality work. Our university reforms threaten to go the same way. As these institutions globalize and compete for students and funding in the world, they are likely to be known as poor-quality teaching shops that can nevertheless teach a large number at low cost. Do we want that'