The three-year action agenda of government think tank NITI Aayog was released on 23 April 2017, and the sections on science and technology (pp 100-103) and education and skill development (pp 131- 140) need to be read together. One presumes that this document is not merely a wish list of things that need to be implemented, but is actually what it says it is, namely an action plan of things that will executed through the Science and Technology and Human Resources and Development ministries.
It is heartening to see that the action agenda links research with education in an emphatic manner. For far too long we have been used to a system where these components were treated independently with research being carried out in institutes, government labs and elite organisations, and education being left to the universities and colleges. Research without teaching is a mirage. Teaching without research is drudgery for a person who is qualified to do research.
The NITI Aayog report is very honest. With regard to primary education, it admits that most of the public money spent on this has been a waste, while it recognises that enrollment in private schools is increasing. It also recognises that primary education is connected to higher education. This is quite something. As a teacher for nearly 40 years, and in the business of selecting PhD students in the top two institutions, where I have worked for all of this time, I have been truly surprised to see the overall poor quality of aspiring research scholars.
A poor education at the primary and secondary school stages cannot produce someone who will make a good researcher. Just having entrance exams with higher and higher standards (usually based on rote memory work) just worsens the problem. I have often felt that the entrance tests for our PhD exams are poorly designed and the student pool that attempts these exams is poorly qualified. The system is unable to identify and nurture the most talented pupils at the primary school level.
In such a scenario, the initiatives suggested in the action agenda for primary education, if they are implemented, would definitely make an impact. These include computer assisted education, different students studying at different paces based on their talent and aptitude, improving basic skills of even the poorest of learners, new and innovative governance mechanisms and public-private ventures. Even a cautious person would admit that if we are able to make a qualitative difference in the quality of school education in five years, higher research would take off in a big way in 15 years.
Considering that I had written in Swarajya just a few weeks ago about demarcating state universities and colleges into four categories (universities salvageable with money, colleges salvageable with money, universities that can be reduced to teaching institutions and unsalvageable universities), I was delighted to see that I was on the same page as the action agenda on this topic. This document also brings in the central institutions and the degrees of regulation in the various tiers that can be put in place. I do wish that learned academics in India do not respond with a knee jerk reaction when they hear of tiering of educational institutions, and see this as a loss of equity and inclusion. Most progressive countries have such a system, but it is operated honestly so that any university can obtain a higher or lower rank in each evaluation period based on its performance.
The problem in India is that no university or institution will be down-ranked if the performance is less than satisfactory, but others will be up-ranked even if they show only an indifferent performance. In the end, everyone will get the same high rank and everyone will be happy. This must not happen. The action agenda even goes as far as saying that two very special universities/teaching institutions will be identified for huge support (like Beijing and Tsinghua in China, or NUS and Nanyang in Singapore) out of the eight other world-class universities that are would be eligible for such support. This is very difficult to do in India with our present mindset that constantly harps on equity and inclusiveness and all sorts of arguments which I fear will be raised when one tries to implement this 2-8 differentiation among these 10 topmost universities. Let us see if the government is able to do this by September 2017, which is the deadline for this proposal in the action agenda.
I have expressed myself freely and frankly, and in many forums, about the University Grants Commission (UGC), the monster of Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, and all the havoc that this organisation has caused in the higher education sector. I was immensely pleased to see therefore that the action agenda states the following: “The University Grants Commission (UGC) Act of 1956 is in dire need of reform. The UGC’s position as an overarching regulator of every aspect of higher education from student fees to curriculum to teaching and course hours keeps India’s higher education system from responding to the changes and challenges it faces in a fast evolving world”. How very true this is. I would recommend scrapping the UGC completely and starting all over again, but I fear this may not happen. I understand that a new chairman and vice-chairman of the UGC are to be appointed soon. They have their task cut out for them. They need all our good wishes.
Coming to research, I was glad to see that the Chinese model has been referred to many times. For far too long, I have listened to preachy professors in the topmost research institutions telling me that India is different from China and we should not compare the two countries with regard to their performance in higher level research. This has always seemed an unreasonable approach to me because both are large, agrarian economies and both countries were quite poor, say 60 years ago. China also had to face the rigours of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and this was nothing short of debilitating.
In a short space of say 30 years, China has become the second-most influential country in the sphere of science research, while India lagged far behind. It behooves us as rational thinking people to wonder why this is the case. I have even heard arguments from “senior” Indian scientists that China may have more research papers but that papers from India have a higher intellectual content. The action agenda clearly shows where and how we have fallen short of the Chinese benchmark and I hope academics and researchers think about this matter seriously without socio-political blinkers. Perhaps we should think a little about what one of the cleverest of them, Deng Hsiao-Ping said that it doesn’t matter if a cat was black or white as long as it caught the mice. We need a bit of this ruthlessness even if it means sacrificing some of our more sacred cows.
Another important point made in the action agenda is that our funding for higher research is woefully low. We are nowhere near the “golden” 2 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) that is required in this sector. In 2011, our investment in research was as low as 0.82 per cent of GDP compared to 1.8 per cent in China and 3.7 per cent in South Korea during the same year. It is a brutal fact but the less you spend in research, the less you get.
Further, the amount of time wasted in a money-starved environment looking for clever out-of-the-box solutions for problems which could simply be solved with money, is just unbelievable. I have heard other preachy professors telling me that it’s always better to have a little less money to do research because then the mind thinks better. This is like telling a hungry man that fasting is good for his health. Modern science of a cutting edge type needs money, and lots of it. The challenge in India is to ensure that it goes to the right person.
There is also a mention of patents and the fact that they need to be licensed, not merely filed. The tradition of start-up companies affiliated with educational institutions has simply not taken off in India, not even in the IITs, where many of the professors prefer consultancy arrangements with companies. Council of Scientific & Industrial Research might have a little more experience in this area but in the end it is the small researcher in a small institution who might have just the right idea that can be developed into a product and accordingly a gain to the overall economy. In the same way that teaching and research go hand-in-hand, research and entrepreneurship go hand-in-hand at the next stage. We must move to a stage where there is a seamless interaction between the public and private sectors in matters concerned with research and development.
National level mission mode projects in areas such as water management, agriculture, energy, waste management and health are also discussed but these would mostly come under the purview, in my opinion, of ministries other than Science and Technology and Human Resources and Development. I therefore do not discuss these ideas here but it is of note that with the consideration of new science management systems (the action agenda speaks of one of these, a proposed national science, technology and innovation foundation headed by a distinguished scientist in 2017 itself), it might be more appropriate if this new body (if it materialises) concerns itself only with these national level mission mode projects that cut across several line ministries.
The business of education and research in science is an old one. Many countries that now lead the world in research have adopted time tested methods of quality evaluation and nurturing. There is no need for us to try too many new things. Fortunately, the NITI Aayog action agenda largely proposes this classical model for education and research. It is another matter that we have not adopted these methods so far. If the recommendations given in the action agenda are implemented honestly and without fear or favour, we will see all the signs of excellent growth. But this is a big if, given the present situation in science research and science leadership in India.
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