“As long as we discourage young talent, encourage an obsolete examination system and remain indifferent to research, we will continue to lag behind the West.”
Former President Pranab Mukherjee has given a significant statement reflecting upon the education system of our country. While addressing the faculty and students in an event in Chittagong university he said that the renowned institutes like IIT are producing professionals who are turning out to be salesmen, working for MNCs. Emphasizing on research in higher education, he said that it’s time that South Asian Universities reflect on and analyse their goals and vision. When it comes to global reputation, Indian universities continue to fail to make it to the top 100 list. Since its launch in 2011, not a single Indian university has ever made it to the THE ( Times Higher Education ) top 100 world reputation rankings, including the recently released ranking.
Let us tread a little in the long lost lanes of history. It is a historical fact that the first university in the world was established sometime in the 7th century B.C. at Taxila (then in India and now in Pakistan). The original name of the place was ‘Takshashila’ which means ‘carved stone’. Taxila university was followed by the second university founded in Nalanda in India in the 5th century B.C. Taxila’s glory ended with its total destruction by the Huns after functioning as a great educational centre for more than ten centuries. It taught some of the most illustrious students like Chanakya, well-known Sanskrit grammarian Panini and Patanjali, the great Yoga exponent. Nalanda was destroyed in an Afghan attack in 1193, shortly after the beginning of the Oxford University and just before the initiation of the Cambridge University. Had Nalanda not been destroyed and had it managed to survive to our time, it would be, by a long margin, the oldest university in the world.
Nalanda’s aim was to create the most intellectually and spiritually mature individuals who would become qualified to contribute to every aspect of society for its overall being. Admission to Nalanda was strictly based on merit and the aptitude of the student. In spite of this hard and rigid test, at its heyday Nalanda had on its role nearly 10,000 students from all over the world. The teacher student ratio was 1:5. According to both Hsuan-Tsang and I-Tsing, even though there were several men and women in the University and belonging to different nations, there was not even a single case of misbehaviour or breach of rules and regulations. This exhibits the high moral fibre of the students who studied at Nalanda. The curriculum included both sacred and secular learning. According to Hsuan-Tsang, “Two hundred villages in and around Nalanda University contributed freely the requirements of ghee, butter, milk and such other daily provisions to the entire population of the University”. (Source: The Speaking Tree)
What has happened to this beautiful culture of education in our country? Instead of focusing on research, Indian Universities are producing men and women suitable for mass recruitments in MNCs. Instead of scholars they are producing breadwinners.
Now, let’s look into the problems faced by Indian universities which are making it difficult for us to attain the glorious global reputation our universities once possessed.
Lack of faculty and basic facilities: A prominent TV journalist and activist Ravish, in his very popular and thought provoking “university series” has tried to expose the diseased and treacherous University System of our country. He revealed that under Tarin committee, JAK Tarin gave recommendation andguidelines for universities, which included student-teacher ratio also for various courses in universities. In UG and PG courses there should be one teacher for 25 students for science stream and one teacher for 30 students for social sciences. But the university system has become a mere joke in our country as there are a few universities functioning at present, which have ZERO permanent teachers for over 1900 students. There is also one university that has 10,000 students and 65 teachers with no maintenance of classrooms and washrooms. Some universities have become centre of politics only and destroyed self. There are colleges where students can be seen studying on their own, seated on the ground with no basic facilities, with no guides but mere ‘guidelines’.
Giving an example of another such university, Ravish mocked the Indian university system. There is one university which has 1500 students enrolled for the subject- History and there is only ONE permanent teacher to teach them. He says that in a country where history as a subject stands as such a joke, what issues do you expect the future generations to be fighting on and rallying and protesting about? The question arises- How are these universities even given UGC affiliation and grading by NAAC (National Assessment and Accreditation Council)? It’s a shame that our universities are being carried forward by ad-hoc teachers. None of the community or politician is talking about this horrible state of universities? Switch on your television and read newspapers, we are still discussing issues which are 300 years old. (NDTV: UNIVERSITY SERIES)
Lack of endowment culture: In the US and Europe, alumni give back to their university in the form of grants, donations and sometimes their entire property after death (if they are a loner). This money is harvested in hedge funds, start-ups and other investment avenues make it constantly grow. Harvard alone has $32 Billion in its endowments. Stanford has about $16 billion, Yale about $19 billion. This money funds new infrastructure, research and faculty.
In contrast, entire expenditure on higher education in India by the government is about $3 billion/year and all expenses on all education is about $10 billion.
Top Indian institutions are young: Almost all reputed universities in the UK and US are over a century old. Oxford was founded in 1167 AD, Cambridge in 1209, Harvard in 1636, Yale in 1701, etc. That means they have an accumulated benefit of centuries of wisdom, alumni, infrastructure and international reputation. It takes time to build your name and alumni. India's top institutions are only decades old (first IIT came in 1951).
Focus on professional education. India's top priority when it comes to higher education is to educate enough of engineers, doctors and managers. This is because we need enough nation builders given our state of the economy. At this stage of development (with a per-capita income hovering around $1200/person/year) it is wise to put our money on educating professionals than research (can be a super-expensive game in many fields that needs a bigger chunk of our meagre budget). But we must now encourage and reward the one who spend time in research. If Indian educated students can be core part of the research elsewhere then if given an opportunity, why not in India.
Poor school education. Given a better schooling system, the undergraduates in good US universities come better prepared and get better resources. Indian institutions often get underprepared students from our poorer schools and it takes a lot of effort on the part of our professors to make many of them realize their potential.
Poor payment to faculty. In India, being a professor is not that attractive a job. A good software engineer could earn 4X of what a faculty at IIT earns. Given the poor payment and horrible politics, people tend to assume that you had no other option before you joined as a faculty. This self-fulfilling vicious cycle provides us poor faculty (both in payments and quality) although I know of plenty of really committed teachers who stand out and are still committed to give their 100%, come what may. (Source: Quora)
The Hindu also raised this issue through one of its articles and brought up four critical differences between universities of the western world and ours, stating the reasons why our universities are lagging behind.
1. The first is that they (western universities) do all they can, when they recruit young faculty, to make way for excellence. We do everything to block its entry. We start discouraging talent early, but a few bright youngsters manage to come up despite our best efforts. They are the ones who face the greatest resistance from our institutions at the time of selection for vacancies. In our case, the initial criteria applied are purely mechanical. Any hint of trans-disciplinary interest means that the candidate loses the chance to be interviewed. And those who somehow escape this fate are ultimately sized up at the time of interview in terms of the lobbies they might belong to.
2. The second major difference between our universities and the western ones relates to the concept of teaching. We calculate teaching in terms of periods taken. The Radhakrishnan Commission had bemoaned the fact that our colleges work like higher secondary schools. More than six decades after the commission gave its report; life in our undergraduate colleges is just the same. The UGC demands 18 periods of teaching per week from an assistant professor. “Isn’t that reasonable?” one might ask. Of course, it is, if you ignore what the word “teaching” means.
In India, we worry about attendance records to keep the student under pressure to attend classes that may be altogether devoid of intellectual stimulation. Despite attendance norms being stringent, there are classes without much attendance. There are also numerous cases of attendance without class. An obsolete system of examination helps teachers who miss classes and make no effort to relate to students. There are many who take the number of periods required, but their classes have no soul or spark.
3. The third critical difference between life in an Indian university and a university in the West arises out of the concept of knowledge embedded in the system. In the West, curriculum and pedagogy both follow the teacher’s own research interests. Even smaller universities with limited resources attempt to cultivate a research environment. Topics of research reflect the university’s concern for the social and natural world surrounding it. Research is seen as an inquiry to solve problems as well as to induct the young into a community of inquiries. To keep their research interests alive and popular, senior professors engage with young undergraduates who bring fresh questions and perspectives to on-going inquiries.
In India, we stop teaching undergraduate classes as soon as you attain professorial status. Teaching and research are seen as two separate activities. While teaching is perceived as institutional work, research is viewed as a personal agenda for moving forward in one’s career. Not surprisingly, infrastructure and administrative procedures that might facilitate research do not exist. Obstacles do, and the teachers who make the mistake of initiating a research project has to struggle all the way to its completion and the ritual of report submission to the funding agency.
4. The fourth critical difference lies in the library. In the West, even in the most ordinary universities, the library forms the centre of life, both for teachers and students. Librarians enjoy a high status as their contribution to academic life cuts across academic disciplines. They work closely with teachers and students in the various tasks involved in procurement of books and journals, keeping the library quiet and friendly, and ensuring speedy access. Our case is the opposite. The library exists on the margins of the classroom. In many universities, undergraduate students are not allowed to use the university library. Book acquisition has been saturated with petty corruption and a crowd of spurious publishers has thrived on the outskirts of the academia.
With so many problems and shortcomings at hand, it becomes difficult to suggest a set of solutions to come out of this situation but as the first and the most important step, our universities will have to change their vision. They will have to stop claiming to be factories of mass production of well suited employees. They will have to claim and work hard in the direction of sculpting and chiselling promising scholars who have the capacity to become promising citizens, who would not only take up research but would also look forward to inventions and discoveries. The faculty should be as enthusiastic and promising as the students and learning will have to become research based rather than theoretical. Also, government must expedite the faculty recruitment as we have plenty of qualified post graduates who are NET qualified and willing to work with commitment and enthusiasm.
Though it may seem like a joke but the truth is that top universities of the world have the teacher pupil ration ranging from 1:4 (best) to 1:10 (worst) but government must try to make it as 1:25 or 1:30. Some people may not agree with Mr Ravish’s point of view on different issues but the responsible people must go through what he showed in his ‘universities series’ episodes and take corrective measures.
Let’s hope for a better future as we still have some good news to celebrate. Although we lag behind in the overall world ranking but IITs still rank among top 50 engineering institutes and Delhi University stays in top 20 for English Literature and Linguistics. Universities are the last step of formal learning before one takes a plunge in the professional world. Like school education even universities should work in the moral fibre, keeping in mind the necessity of learning that results into holistic development of a student’s personality.