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Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh’s opinion that the quality of research and the standards of the faculty at the prestigious IITs and IIMs are not world class has created a controversy. He feels that it is the high quality of students that helps these institutions to maintain some level of excellence. He has been criticised for his remarks but there are many, even among academics, who would agree with him. India has developed fast but its institutions of higher learning are way behind those in developed countries. Countries like China and Korea have also advanced far ahead of India towards a knowledge economy.  There is no Indian centre of learning among the top institutions in the world. In terms of research papers and patents the country lags behind many others.
It is necessary to accept this if we are to make progress in scientific and technological research. The reason for the poor state of affairs is not just the lack of quality faculty. Lack of facilities, infrastructure and funding is equally responsible for it. Even the supposedly high emoluments now being paid to faculty members are unable to attract the best talent to the academia. Even in the best institutions politics and an entrenched bureaucratic culture can adversely the quality of teaching and research. Incentives for excellence and disincentives against below par performance are clearly lacking in such a system. India was at such a stage of development in the last few decades that the aim of these institutions was rightly to equip the students with the best job skills. But now the aim has to go beyond imparting job skills and create new knowledge and skills which will take the country to a new level of development. The working, structure and management practices of these institutions need to change for the better for this. There is also the need to create more of them. Large capital and human resource investments are needed for this.

The minister has said the quality of students is high. While this is so, it has also been observed that the country’s best institutions do not attract the best students. This is partly because of the faulty selection process which puts a premium on coaching. An improved selection system which values intelligence and creativity more than other abilities can attract better students. Such students will have better abilities for innovation and fresh thinking in all areas.

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