Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Learning to shield our academic excellence

Arun Shourie, Thursday, September 14, 2006

The number of students who come to India to study is going down. Meanwhile, the amount of money spent on Indian students studying abroad is sufficient to set up 30-40 IIMs or 15-20 IITs every year. The threat is that we may lose our best minds at a rate faster than ever before. The opportunity is that we can be educators to the world
About 8,000 foreign students are studying in India. In Australia, on the other hand, there are about 350,000 — and remember, we add to our numbers every year more than the total population of Australia. Nor is it just that foreign students studying in India are less than a fortieth of those studying in Australia. The number of students who come to India has actually been going down: according to government figures, in 1990/91, there were over 12,765; last year there were 7,745! (By contrast, the increase in 2004 in the number of foreign students studying in China was three times the total number of foreign students that came to India: China hosted 141,087 foreign students in 2005.) We could be educators to the world — just as we could be surgeons to the world. But here is another opportunity missed: while Dubai, Singapore, Australia, to say nothing of distant US, etc. are positioning themselves as education hubs, we remain mired in that bog — the HRD Ministry.

It isn’t just that we are missing an opportunity. We are paying a huge cost every year. One estimate puts the amount that is spent on Indian students studying abroad at a figure that would be sufficient to set up 30-40 IIMs or 15-20 IITs every year. And going abroad to study is just the first step. Having studied in that country, having got familiar with the place and people, most decide to take up work there. Soon enough, they settle down there. Science and Engineering Indicators, 2006, reports that of Indian students who received doctorates in Science and Engineering between 2000 and 2003, close to 90 per cent said they planned to stay on in the US; two-thirds had firmed up “definite plans to stay.” The proportions were the same in one critical discipline after another: 91% and 62% in biological and agricultural sciences; 92% and 72% in mathematics and computer sciences; 90% and 70% in engineering...(Science and Engineering Indicators, 2006, Appendix tables, A2-96 to 100.)

The fault is by no means that of the youngsters. And there is no doubt that those who have stayed on in the US, etc. have also done much for India — they have, among other things, helped change the world’s perception of India, and, thereby, India’s perception of itself. But imagine how much our country would have gained in actual productive potential if we had educational institutions of such quality that these youngsters did not have to go abroad. Imagine how much our country would have gained if they worked here, that is if the work environment here had been such that they had felt confident they could develop to their fullest potential, and reap rewards commensurate with their capabilities and with the effort they put in.

And if we persist in the obscurantist policies and practices that mar our educational sector, this drain will only increase in the coming years. Countries are straining to develop themselves as the more attractive destinations — for students, for investors, for firms. Nor is the matter confined to choice, there is a compulsion too, a compulsion of which these leading countries are well aware and to counter which they are taking focused steps. In regard to the US, for instance, National Science Foundation data reveal that in 2003, 85 per cent of those holding Science and Engineering doctorates and working were above 55 years of age; 76 per cent were above 60 years; 20 per cent were 70 and above. The proportions for those holding Master’s degrees were equally significant: they were 85%, 65%, and 16% respectively. (Science and Engineering Indicators, 2006, Appendix tables, A3-43.) And this is just one among many reasons on account of which these countries will continue to aggressively court researchers and skilled workers from India and elsewhere.

Indeed, the threat now is not just that individuals will be wooed away. Countries — from Singapore to South Korea to Taiwan to China to the EU-25 — are making even greater efforts to woo entire firms away, in particular R&D firms. Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan have already become significant research-hubs. But the suction for entire R&D firms can come from farther a-field too. We think of the US as a high-cost economy, as one that is now compelled to outsource R&D efforts to a country like India. But that is just one side of the picture, and that is true only for one end of research. In 2002, US firms spent around $ 21 billion doing research in foreign countries. As against this, foreign firms spent close to $ 26 billion doing research in the US. (Science and Engineering Indicators, 2006, Volume I, 0-4, 0-5, 18.) And that stands to reason: researchers are less costly in countries like India, but today a great deal of research, and almost all of frontier research, involves such high-technology infrastructure that it is best executed in countries like the US.

Things to do

The first thing to do is to stop counter-positioning primary, universal education against higher education. We need both. We can afford both. Second, we must see both — the threat as well as the opportunity: the threat that we may lose our best minds at an even faster rate than the rate at which we have been losing them in the past decades; on the other side, the opportunity that we can be educators to the world.

Third, to ward off the threat and to tap into the opportunity, we require the same sort of measures. To arrest and reverse the alarming deterioration of standards in most of our institutions of higher learning. To ensure that in regard to both - students as well as faculty - merit, performance here and now, alone counts. To ensure that rewards are strictly commensurate with performance.

And resources. A large proportion of these will have to come from the government - for instance, private entrepreneurs just do not have the long horizons that basic research requires. Equally, government alone will just not have enough resources for this sector. Thus, one service that finance ministers can do is to give the most generous incentives and tax-breaks for industry to invest in education and in R&D. For every trifling misuse, a Manipal will come up.

And the resources have to be defrayed not just on equipment - that is what is done ever so often: and by the time the underpaid, under-motivated faculty learn to exploit the equipment to its full potential, the equipment is obsolete. A good proportion of the resources have to be set apart for making salaries and allowances of faculty and researchers and their work-environment attractive enough for them to forego careers in private industry and to choose instead to be in universities and research institutions.

It is obvious that we cannot do any of this so long as higher education and research is dominated by governmental institutions. China, for instance, has launched an aggressive drive to bring back the very best Chinese faculty who are working in universities in the US, Europe and the like. To attract them back, China is giving them remuneration and allowances and work facilities that are better than what they have in universities where they are working. This is being done irrespective of what existing faculty get in the Chinese establishments in which these returnees will be lodged. Can such a thing be done in a governmental organisation in India - what with its scales and unions; what with the fact that the salary of a professor cannot be higher than that of the vice chancellor, and the salary of a vice chancellor cannot be higher than that of secretary, HRD...? I am, therefore, wholly against the current rush for affiliation, etc. We should encourage institutions to de-affiliate, from existing universities and the like. Colleges and research departments and institutions will come to be known by the work they do, by the standards to which they adhere. Along with this movement to de-affiliate we should develop first-rate, wholly objective and reliable methods to rank institutions.

But the gaps are so vast that mere resources will not do. We need to adopt unconventional methods to scale up this sector. The remarkable success that F C Kohli, one of the fathers of IT in India, has achieved with the “total-immersion” method in making absolutely illiterate persons literate enough to read a newspaper within 8 to 10 weeks; his analysis of “gaps” between the best engineering college in Maharashtra and other colleges in the state, and how these can be bridged by using modern IT and communications technologies - these are the sorts of measures we need to put in place. And, instead of stuffing IITs and IIMs with mediocrities just because they were born to one set of parents than another, we should induce them to multiply faculty, and to upgrade existing faculty in other institutions.

Two prerequisites

But for any of these measures to be executed we need two prerequisites. The first is to outgrow clich├ęs. “Do not make a commodity of education,” our politicians shout every time there is the slightest effort to make educational institutions self-sustaining. “Do not sell ma-Saraswati,” they shout every time there is an effort to induce industry to take up education. All such shouting ensures is that existing scarcities continue, and the existing education-czars rate off the lolly. All it accomplishes is to enable a dental college here, near Delhi itself, to pocket a “donation” of Rs 28 lakh from every entrant...Is the way to deal with the fact that 150,000 students have just applied to the IIM, Ahmedabad, for 250 seats in its two-year course, to force it to take in 27 per cent additional students — that is, sixty two more students — on the basis of birth? Or is it to give incentives to industry to set up 62 institutions of comparable worth?

And then there is the even more urgent task — to reverse the recent trend in regard to the few islands of excellence that remain: the recent trend of interfering in the IITs and IIMs. The recent edicts regarding reservations are just one — though by itself fatal enough — lance of such interference. Appointments of directors; hauling them up before Commissions because some congenitally disgruntled employee keeps writing letters to high-ups; the insistence of a legislative Committee that they switch to Hindi as the medium of instruction...There is an all-round assault to breach their autonomy.

To ward off such senselessness, three things are required. First, do not temporise: do not think that the way to meet the assault is to concede a bit - those concessions will not assuage the grabbers; on the contrary, they will become the reasons for the political and bureaucratic class to grab all: “See, the director himself is saying that they are ready to abide by our order - all he is asking is that he be given a little time to do so...” Second, as those who are working in these institutions are in a sense under the thumb of government — and I have been struck dumb by fear to which faculty themselves testify in open meetings — outsiders, in particular the alumni of these institutions, have an important duty: they must constitute themselves as firewalls around these institutions.

But the assault on such institutions is but an instance of the general assault on excellence in India today: from legislatures to civil service to educational establishments, mediocrity is being asserted as norm, vulgarity as right, intimidation as argument, assault as proof. Two classes today stand in counter-position to this assault on standards - entrepreneurs and the professional middle class. Accordingly, the pan-Indian organisations of professionals should get together to contain, roll-back and eventually eliminate this assault.

(Concluded)(Based on the Foundation Day Lecture, IIT, Kharagpur, Alumni Association, Delhi.)

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