Improving higher education

It is not uncommon these days many Indians showing strong concern — at least on public occasions — about the shoddy state of affairs in which we find our higher education today. It will be an understatement to say that everything is not fine with our higher education system. The rot has gone really deep, and in some sense it is equivalent to our record in primary education which is nothing if not a scandal. Our record in intermediate education is only slightly better, depending on where we look at. People in position of influence in this society, whatever they say in public, do not care much about either school education or research education. What they care most is the undergraduate education which they can afford and good enough to be considered by universities abroad for further training [1]. Naturally, the demand for more (subsidized and good) undergraduate colleges have been most intense in our cities while the demand for better primary and secondary education has been lackluster at best. Middle class Indians do not like to send their children to government schools if they can afford a private one.

It goes without saying whatever benefit a research degree from US and Europe brings to an Indian or to India (as green-backs if not as gray cells), some Indian university pays a price for it. Many of our universities which started off really well are in the state of decay. And it is for everyone to see. It is not clear how they can be revived in near future. Those who are directly responsible for affairs in our universities, at times, show remarkable disregard for their own institutions. In any case,  they have little personal, if not professional stake, in research culture of their institute. The Indian professor love to mention his commitments to his university, but what he loves more is sending their children abroad for higher education.

As old universities continue to falter, there is a growing demand for more universities, world-class or otherwise, in this growing country. Our inability to maintain old universities is only matched by our jest for opening new ones. Despite all their shortcomings, there are some still left with some potential of doing research.

Whether or not we are able to find good faculty and take care of our current research students, the emphasis on research is most likely to be continued, even in those universities which proud themselves till yesterday as teaching schools. A strong culture of teaching is a great asset for any university which wants to make a mark in research. Research can not be done by mere inspiration, one has to learn how to do it. And one can not learn everything by oneself, one has to be taught, at least initially. It has been said that in long run teaching suffers a great deal if little research is conducted. It can be noted that there are only few universities in this world which are successful in both teaching and research. In India at least, it is not always easy to find inspired student and teacher who is also competent enough. And our fanatical obsession with examinations creates a formidable distraction to both teaching and research.

There is a presupposition of creativity in research. A research worker is not only expected to produce new data, he is also expected to give new interpretation. In short, he is expected to add something new — no matter how limited — to the existing body of knowledge in his research area. This is perhaps an ideal type of aim which universities seek to emulate. But even if a research worker graduates from an university after mastering only well-known tricks which are useful for society outside in one sense or another, the university definitely can claim some credit in this industrialized world of specialized knowledge.

In the past, the character of research education in European universities was very much like the training of medieval craftsmen. A professor took few research students and they learned their craft as best as they could by personal association. Everything was informal and much depend on the personal equation between supervisor and student. This is how research is done in most departments in Indian universities today.

The defects of such a system are obvious. It leaves too much on personal inclination, on the temperament and character, especially of research supervisor. The personal equation between supervisor and student varies from one case to other to a great extent. Some students have frequent contact with their supervisors, others usually work in isolation or meet their supervisor in very formal and rigid manner. This all leads to much wastage. And even when dropout rates not high, it can lead to much acrimony and heart burning in a society where generations do not meet on equal terms. Nonetheless, the survivor often learn a great deal by slowly coming to grips with an intellectual or unsolved problem, either under close supervision or on his own.

The general intellectual environment of the university plays a major role in all research done in an university. It is a truism that many of great scholars in the past did their work either outside of universities or by sitting at its periphery. Such is no longer the case. We don’t know many who are doing any significant work on their own outside universities. There is much more at stake now in maintaining the culture of university. In a book titled “Universities at the crossroads”, Andre Beteille recounts his experience in a round table conference held in Chicago in 1991 where vice-chancellors of major US universities gathered to discuss the future of universities in 21st century. No one seemed to be certain about it. Many were not happy with the prevalent conditions in their universities: the men of universities are busy spending most of their time in their personal projects and have little time for their universities. It is easy to notice these days that networks and associations are becoming more important than universities themselves. And we should ask ourselves rather seriously, how much of it is beneficial to university as an institute and how much it helps a young researcher to grow?

Various things  are being said everyday on how and what research should be done in our universities. But what is most important to a young researcher — given our love for degrees — is to finish his Ph.D. and find a place for himself before he can strike on his own. When the personal equation between supervisor and his research student plays one of the most important role in a successful dissertation, the institute must ensure that the supervisor gives some minimum amount of time to his students. On universities, not every supervisor does academic work even when he posses high academic qualifications.  At least in India, one is very familiar with the professor who starts off his academic career impressively and in the middle find himself building empires for himself and his dependents. I am not suggesting that empire builders do not chase some higher purpose but I am extremely doubtful if university is the proper place for them to do so.

When the supervisor is busy building empires for himself or have pushed himself too deep into non-academic projects for one reason or another, wittingly or unwittingly, he can hardly give much time to his student. He can not be expected or keep himself updated what is going on in his area of expertise. Their work may have everything in it to please all the funding agencies in the world, and attract all the good words from his peers, but the general atmosphere of an university will be more friendly to academics — and what is more important to a young student — if our supervisors are little more mindful of what their students think of their work, and stop persuading them to fit into their cherished and extremely important agendas, by means foul or fair.


[1] ‘I do think their (Delhi University’s) logic is an interesting one and would certainly be of help to those students who would like to go to graduate school in some place like America where you have a 12+ 4 system rather than a 10+2+3 system as we have in our country.‘ — Shashi Tharoor, defending Delhi University new curriculum.



Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

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