China has done it, why can’t India?

IN PERSPECTIVE

India has the third-largest higher education system in the world after the US and China, with as many as 993 universities and 51,649 higher education institutions. However, the quality of our graduates, their industry-readiness, research output and spirit of innovation leaves much to be desired. In the initial years of independence, India laid the foundation of some of its best educational institutions in the form of IITs and IIMs, which continue to be recognized as world-class centres of learning. Given India’s size and population, we need many more such top-tier educational institutions that can churn out a large number of innovation-focused graduates.

China, on the other hand, has made great strides in creating world-class higher education institutions that attract not just local but foreign students as well. In recent years, Chinese universities have displayed increasing dominance in the field of higher education, consistently featuring in several global rankings. 

What China did

In line with its ambition to become a global powerhouse, China took a conscious leap in the 1990s in the direction of transforming its higher education structure. Since then, China has allocated an ever-increasing percentage of its budget to education, with the same touching 4.26% of its GDP in 2015. From 1,022 universities in 2001, they numbered 2,631 in 2017, more than doubling in about 15 years. With a quest to transform the country into “an innovative society”, China intends to have at least 40 world-class universities by the middle of the century. 

China has put a major thrust on boosting research and innovation as part of its higher education set-up. A recent study by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), Geneva, reported that China-based universities had taken a lead in artificial intelligence-based inventions, proving their mettle in top research and innovation institutions in fields hitherto dominated by the US and Japan.

The country published more than 426,000 research studies in 2016, surpassing the US in the volume of research publications for the first time. Contrary to what many sceptics like to believe, China is not just leaping ahead in volume, but it is also producing quality research, as gauged by the increasing number of citations they are garnering. Between 2007 and 2017, research by Chinese scientists and engineers were cited a total of 19 million times in the Web of Science. 

What we need to do

In India, both the government and the private sector have taken steps to establish more institutions to meet the ever-increasing demand for higher education. A series of reforms have pulled more students into the realm of research and publishing, with India’s scientific publications growing by 13.9% between 2009 and 2013. However, what we need to improve is the quality of output of original research as well as scientific innovation at university level. 

Increase expenditure on research: India’s investment in research is a meagre 0.62% of GDP. In contrast, the US spends 2.74% of its GDP and China 2.11% of its GDP on research. In 2015, there were just 216 researchers per million population in India, while the US had 4,300 per million population and China 1,200 researchers per million population. Increasing expenditure on research, particularly for scientific research in higher education, must be a top priority of the government. For a country that manages to spend over 2% of its GDP on defence, increasing spending on education and research is not a matter of shortage of resources but that of misplaced priorities.

Promote undergraduate research: Most Indian students graduate without producing any piece of original thought, innovation, research or even a dissertation. This needs to change. We need to cultivate a strong culture of enquiry and research in students right from the early years. Students must also be provided adequate training in conducting independent research. At the same time, monitoring the quality of research must be given high priority.

Create new pedagogies: If we have to transform the way students approach education, we need to transform the way pedagogues approach it. Challenging our methods and strategies, finding a new balance between theoretical and practical knowledge, and creating more industry-academia ties are the need of this century. It is also important to establish incubation centres in education institutions that can help students with potentially game-changing technological ideas to incubate them and find business support.

Improve the scale of PPP: Unlike the West and China, India is yet to witness a growth in the culture of philanthropic endowments from alumni and from corporate sponsors. The state of public-private partnerships in research also remains dismal. We must make concerted efforts to institute strong industry-academia bonds to promote cutting-edge research in education institutions through endowments, funding and scholarships. This will also help improve education institutions in producing more industry-ready graduates.

(The writer is Vice Chancellor, JK Lakshmipat University, Jaipur)

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