Research universities
  • After many centuries, India has a chance today to participate on a level playing field in the upcoming technological revolution.

Scientific research has today evolved into a multi-trillion-dollar cooperative enterprise for achieving economic and societal advancement, unlike in antiquity when it was limited to a connoisseur’s pursuit. Far-sighted nations of the world place great importance on scientific research. In the process of attaining greater scientific ambitions, they achieve several smaller goals incessantly. Their approach is similar to a weiqi player, where the player’s fundamental aim is to cover as much area on the board as possible. This constructive approach assures them systemic longevity and contributes to their human-development indices copiously.

On the other hand, nations with highly centralized leaderships have a tendency to focus merely on populist solutions. Such systems evolve similar, if not identical, to the “save-the-king” approach used in the game of chess. Where weiqi involves “encircling” that is relevant to the larger spatial strategic goals of the player, chess ends when the king is bared and involves no further spatial strategy. Therefore, history demonstrates that the greater the focus on populist solutions, the more the nation is away from a superior national vision. History also validates that far-sighted nations cultivate professional diligence, discipline, uninterrupted efforts and realism, whereas myopic populist nations proliferate servility, corruption, illusion and self-annihilation.

Visionary nations appreciate the hard fact that peacetime is a gratuity period for doing high-end science and failing to create scientific assets would be the greatest inhibitor of progress. Peacetime R&D is also a wholesome socioeconomic healer. It engages the population in the betterment of their environment, encourages creativity, and brings economic prosperity and societal harmony. Consequently, during peacetime, visionary nations engage their universities and scientific institutions for spirited R&D and produce generations of well- and hands-on trained scholars from myriad fields of science and innovation.

However, if a nation uses universities mostly for “teaching” and not for enthusiastic state-of-the-art scientific research, then it is grossly under-utilizing its prime assets. India, by keeping most of its 200-plus state universities only as teaching universities, is hurting its own long-term interests.

The concept of a “teaching” university for India was first communicated in 1854 by Charles Wood, the president of the British Empire’s Board of Control, to Lord Dalhousie, then Governor General of India for the British East India Company. The suggestion was to use the University of London as an archetype for establishing the Universities of Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Allahabad, and Delhi. The model of a collegiate teaching university was adopted for most universities thereafter.

For various geopolitical reasons, none of our Indian universities pre-independence were able to rise up to the ranks of top universities of those times. 162 years later, our universities regrettably continue to have low research productivity and fare lowly in global university rankings. Despite having the best of human resource available, the foremost reason for our scientific deficiency has been the past government’s inadequate promotion of high-end scientific research and extremely skewed investments.

Today, India has a massive task of creating 115 million-plus appropriate non-farm jobs over the next decade for its increasingly literate population and to sustain healthy employment rates. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his recent vote of thanks speech in the Lok Sabha rightly acknowledged that generating short-term labour-intensive tasks could never be a monument of India’s success in job creation. Such short-term jobs are definitely not fitting for India’s educated youth. There is a great need for substituting weak and frequently repackaged employment generation schemes with potent ones.

The 2016-17 Union Budget mentions provision of regulatory architecture to transform existing 10 private and 10 public institutions into world-class institutions of education and research. This is a significant project towards establishing analogues of Public and Private Ivy League universities in India. If this blueprint is implemented in mission mode, these 20 universities could enter the club of top hundred universities of the world, at highest ranks possible, in the near future.

However, India’s vast R&D and infrastructural necessities cannot be left to a few institutions, as there is a low threshold to the number of skilled and efficient personnel these institutions can employ. Therefore, now is an appropriate time for India to evolve its 200-plus “teaching” state universities into “research-intensive” state universities.

So how are these two university types different? Where a teaching university focuses more on schooling and tertiary education, a research-intensive university focuses on schooling, hands-on training to potential researchers and innovators, and employing scientists from diverse fields. Where teaching universities possess limited infrastructure, research-intensive universities host several state-of-the-art research institutions on their campuses and therefore employ far greater number of personnel.

These university-based institutions are semi-autonomous in nature, in a way that they possess administrative autonomy for streamlined operations, and in return, appoint students from the university to pursue undergraduate and doctoral scientific research. The collaboration between the faculty and students from the university and scientists from these laboratories churn out high-impact scientific research and innovation, which only augments the university’s global ranking. Research-intensive universities also have far greater abilities to acquire funds from various traditional and non-traditional sources than teaching universities, which have to depend entirely on the government.

How would transforming under-utilized teaching universities into research-intensive universities help India? If state universities are transformed into research universities, their research productivity—increased research publications, higher citation impact, higher number of patents filed and registered, long list of innovations—would ascend tremendously.

Most of the 200-plus state universities are located in class Y and Z cities (according to HRA Classification) and in close proximities to semi-urban and rural areas. Such universities would prompt creation of several R&D-industrial ecosystems—consisting of manufacturing units, start-ups, and consultancy firms, thereby generating continuous homegrown employment across spectra of skills. They would arrest urban migration, upgrade basic infrastructure in the purlieu towards rurbanization, and contribute to allied economic sectors—construction, retail market, tourism, transportation and housing. The R&D ecosystems will be crucial nuclei of the larger governance structure in resolving regional developmental issues swiftly, proficiently and scientifically.

Increased research productivity would galvanize an extensive national university ranking system, entirely based on productivity statistics. This would generate constructive competition and elevate more Indian universities into the Top 50 and Top 25 global ranking tiers. Since state universities are subjects of state governments, the performance of these universities can become a performance metric of the governments accommodating them. Research-intensive universities would attract both highly skilled residents and diaspora, repairing overarching damages caused due to brain drain.

The long-neglected state universities of India have the potential to quench India’s thirst for advancement. The Indian government hereafter ought to purview all its academic and scientific institutions as “Institutions of National Importance”. On a metastrategic echelon, a large number of research universities would employ a vast section of India’s young population. Engaging the youth in energetic, constructive and disciplined activities such as R&D is a compulsion for India at least until the youth bulge—the wide base of India’s population pyramid—subsides around the year 2040. The youth of India, if wisely employed, is capable of transforming India into an advanced high-income economy in the next two decades.

Modern India’s scientific endeavours have suffered from mismanagement of resources and past governments’ truncated perceptions about high science. Despite knowledge being a venerated virtue in Indian culture, these factors made science a less appealing employment sector and kept India a less innovative nation. India has benefitted enormously by opening up its market in 1991, but the enterprise of science is yet to be opened. Continuing with failing policies for science would never help India strategically.

India has endured several disconcerting decades and is now poised to unleash its potential as a global leader. In this crucial chapter of the nation’s evolution, the youth has a critical role to play. India therefore needs to nourish their aspirations. Our country lost its chance to participate in the industrial, space, and semiconductor revolutions. But, after many centuries, today, we have got an opportunity to participate on a level playing field in the upcoming technological revolution and this opportunity needs to be grasped fervently.

This article was publish in the April 2016 issue of our magazine.

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