Indian educational institutes, in the recent decades, have typically not been known for high-impact research. Even ones like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) that produce brilliant students, are rather insignificant in the global research scenario. For an aspiring economic powerhouse like India, leadership in research is critical. Scientific, technological, engineering and management (STEM) education is the most crucial for success in today’s world. Not only do we need the supply of skilled human resources but also a constant process of knowledge creation in these areas.
The government has responded to this challenge by adopting a plan to set up IITs and IIMs in every state of India. Two decades ago India had only four IIMs, now the number is close to twenty. Quantity, however, does not mitigate the lack of quality. Mere enhancement in the number of institutions will not lead to reform in the education sector. What is sorely required is an impetus for quality research.
Research as Key to Modern Academic Growth
For purposes of job specification, academicians were historically described as teachers. This changed completely in the sixties and seventies. Since then, research has emerged as the most important performance measure for academicians. Universities in North America first introduced the “publish-or-perish”: the practice of evaluating an academician through peer-reviewed publications. During the Thatcher government, the United Kingdom and eventually, continental Europe accepted this benchmark.
While Indian educational institutes have not denied the importance of research, they did not mandate peer-reviewed publications from academicians unlike their counterparts across the globe. The appreciation for peer-reviewed publication was often half-hearted, sometimes a compulsion rather than a belief.
Faculty independence is the main argument against mandatory peer-reviewed publication as a performance measure. Peer-review may—as this argument goes—not a suitable measure of one’s soundness of ideas but is often a result of marketing effort of the researcher. An academician who engages herself more with the fellow researchers, is more likely to get his/her work published in a peer-reviewed journal. Critics say that peer-review reduces an academician to a technician, if not to a marketer.
No system is perfect. What is important is that independence should not be a synonym of unproductivity in knowledge creation. The quality of researchers in British India is hardly matched by researchers in independent India. As a matter of fact, CV Raman got the Nobel prize; S N Bose and M. N. Saha did revolutionary discoveries; J. C. Bose invented the radio, a frontier technology of those times. The performance of researchers in the latter half of the twentieth century could, at no rate, surpass this.
Benchmarking is the beginning of professionalism
In the absence of knowledge creation, energy is often diverted towards unproductive activities. The directors and vice-chancellors are not quite sure what is expected of them. The popular anecdote is that directors undertake construction activities in educational campuses to demonstrate their commitment to their job. Sadly, professionalism suffers in the absence of professional criteria.
Ranking and incentives based on ranks have the potential to change the above scenario dramatically. Therefore, the recent National Institutional Ranking Framework is the key to the long-awaited process of reform in Indian academia, which can initiate meaningful academic reform at a systemic level, if used judiciously.
Ranking of Indian educational institutions was so far done by private parties; but for every genuine attempt at ranking, many more spurious ones were published too. The purpose of ranking stood defeated at the end. With an accepted all-India ranking for institutes, academic administrators will focus on improving the rank of their institute and in that process, they will channelize their energy to make a difference to their educational institution based on these parameters. Since a large weight in the ranking parameters has been assigned to peer-reviewed journal publications, the process of ranking will encourage and motivate academicians towards frontier-level research.
Often, institutes in India are ranked based on an unwritten “caste” system. IITs are, as a rule, preferred over NITs; seniority in age makes an IIM, largely, perceived as better than its juniors. Once ranking is universal, transparent and well-accepted, this caste system will go away. For example, IIM-Udaipur, one of the new IIMs that started in 2009, is ranked fifth, ahead of older IIMs.
The Road Ahead
As much as ranking is necessary as a proper benchmark, the subsequent steps are no less important for academic reform. These rankings should determine the government support and funding. Consultancy projects from government and public sector undertakings should be allocated based on this ranking rather than on prior perceptions. Academic administrators may be evaluated based on their institute’s performance on ranking parameters.
Second, the Indian academia, at present, looks toward its North American and European counterparts for inspiration. This power structure may change in this century with Asian countries into predominance. India should take part in this churning process more actively to create a more favourable eco-system for Indian academicians and researchers. The Indian Government should collaborate with other emerging market economies or BRICS-partners to make a common platform for researchers. Quality academic journals may be opened up that are oriented towards this new paradigm.
Third, Indian academe should also be encouraged to work more closely with industry and national problems rather than making marginal contributions to issues of Western economic paradigm. Once opportunity for the same is created with proper incentives, the outcome is bound to follow. Many avenues may be explored such as funding by industry to Indian academia, more engagement of academicians at local and regional levels.
Such measures will keep academicians grounded and make society appreciate academic inputs.
Dr Kaushik Gangopadhyay is Associate Professor of Economics at IIM-Kozhikode
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