Mediocrity over meritocracy

Mediocrity over meritocracy

CULTURE OF EXCELLENCE : It has often been suggested that the solution does not lie in increasing the number of institutions but in shoring up their st

Mediocrity over meritocracy
The time-worn lament by IT czar N R Narayana Murthy recently that there has not been a single invention from India in the last 60 years that became a household name globally, nor any idea that led to “earth shaking” invention to “delight global citizens” merits attention. Some four years ago, chairman of the scientific advisory council to the prime minister C N R Rao warned us of the intellectual decline in India.

This, he said, despite its economic progress while pointing out that India’s contribution compared to, say, China and South Korea that have overtaken India on various indices including education and science and technology – to the top one per cent of the intellectual and scientific output is negligible.

Last year, President Pranab Mukherjee shared similar sentiments calling for “transformative ideas” to steer India's educational institutions from the “muddy waters of mediocrity”. He took note of the fact that while US and China file lakhs of patent applications annually, India has to be content with a few thousands. Somewhat prescriptively, he rued the poor neglect of research in India’s higher educational structure.

Judging by quotients of righteousness, nothing could be more spot-on than Mukherjee’s concerns shared across the spectrum of academic hierarchy. He observed that  scholars obtain international recognition by doing their research work in foreign universities and not in Indian universities – Nobel laureates like Amartya Sen, Har Gobind Khurana, Subrahmanyam Chandrasekhar and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan being a few shining instances.

His remarks were based on the lackadaisical and unimaginative academic atmosphere in Indian varsities and educational institutions, which, despite accommodating over 20 million students, fail to find a place among the top 200 world class universities graded by world class agencies. It has often been suggested that the solution does not lie in hiking up the number of central universities and IITs and IIMs but rather in shoring up the standards of existing institutions.

In this abyss of mediocrity, little incentive is put on excellence, borne out by the allocation of a minuscule 3 per cent of GDP to education. As per a World Bank dataset for 2005-09, India's R&D expenditure was 0.81 per cent of the GDP, while the same was much more for other countries. It also showed that India had only 160 researchers per million population compared to a parallel figure of 5256 in Sweden, 6307 in Singapore, 5151 in Japan and 3838 in the United States.

The 2014 Global Innovation Index saw India go down 10 places (ranked 76) as compared to 2013 while other BRICS nations managed to improve their positions on the index. We all know how hobbled we are by a lack of critical infrastructure that failed to tap the energies of a thriving human resource.

It is about time we internalised that the funding of fundamental research is an investment rather than a cost and it is for the economic rationalists to understand that basic discoveries in one field may represent “applications” of existing knowledge in another field which, in turn, might usher in both a financial return and an even greater social benefit. The Economic Survey for 2014-15, released earlier this year noted that the lower penetration into higher levels of education was leading to higher dropouts, especially among the secondary and upper primary students.

This resulted in accumulation of less educated and less skilled job seekers “at the bottom of the pyramid.” It ascribed low employability levels as much to the poor quality of education as to the fact that fewer students opt for higher education. Incidentally, over 60 per cent of the students in Harvard or Stanford or MIT enrol for the PG and PhD programmes. For a country of a massive population size, elitism is often discounted in fear that anything having to deal with a minority is bound be undemocratic, ample testimony of which can be found in the instinct of government control over a few academic centres of excellence that we have.

Subjects of ‘value’

The objective of education in India being reduced to employment and with dwindling atmospherics for fundamental research, we now see proliferation of only those streams/subjects that are of ‘value’ to the amorphous thing called market. It is not uncommon to see excellent scorers who are very good at ‘cracking’ an examination possessing little theoretical understanding of the subjects of his study.

If faculty and student recruitment are to be bound by the same principles of social justice that are mandated in the public education system, there is little room for meritocracy. Why we cannot produce class and a culture of excellence bears serious reflection.

A distinguished professor of English from Jadhavpur University once took serious exception to the brave talk about world-class universities arguing that the ills of education in India begin at the primary level, with poor school enrolment and high drop-out rates compounded by failures in health and nutrition. The fundamental problem of the Universities for Research and Innovation Bill, 2012 with the main objective to prop a few “innovation universities” as hubs of education, research and innovation was that it wanted to implant them as islands of excellence.

In this new-found zeal for control and ideological indoctrination, as purported by the Indian Institutes of Management Bill, 2015 by the dictates of which a government nod is required in many key issues – from the appointment of the board and its chairman to deciding the fee structure to the creation of new academic departments – what was once again forgotten that the viability of a university depends on its autonomy to sustain high standards and initiate innovation. The quality of public university system must be restored and without the basics of public education that starts from primary schools being revamped, excellence has little chance.
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