How to revive Indian universities

“What one does between the completion of MA and getting a job is called research…Moreover, most of the research papers state the same thing in a thousand different ways,” wrote the acclaimed Hindi satirist Harishankar Parsai in ‘Research Ke Chakkar Mein.’ Shri Lal Shukla, in his celebrated novel ‘Raag Darbari’ called research “ghaas khodana”, or digging up the grass. These remarks succinctly capture how our society at large perceives research as a leisurely activity, an act of squandering time and resources.
 
The failure of Indian universities to secure a spot even in the top 250 on the list of Times Higher Education World University Rankings, therefore, does not come as a surprise. The abysmal rankings of our universities have become, in fact, an anticipated annual ritual and a foregone conclusion. However, what is worrisome is that the state of education in a country that was once the land of the most ancient and excellent universities in the world -- Takshashila, Nalanda, Vikramshila and Vallabhi -- has been reduced to such a degenerated level. In 1193, when Bakhtiyar Khilji burnt down these centres of excellence, mainly Nalanda and Vikramshila, the University of Oxford was in its infancy and the University of Cambridge was not yet born.
 
In India, the British are credited with having started universities in the modern sense of the term. Ever since they started universities in Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta in 1857, these centres could match neither their ancient Indian counterparts nor their contemporary British equivalents. The two British universities -- Oxford and Cambridge -- are consistently among the top universities on the Times list. The number of international students studying there ranges 35-38%, whereas in the premier Indian institutions, like IISc, Bengaluru, the IITs and the University of Delhi, international students make up 1% or less of the student population. Oxford and Cambridge universities have also consistently done exceptionally well on mainly two fronts: research quality and research income per academic staff member. Our performance on these two counts has been consistently low. 
 
The indicators used by Times Higher Education are grouped into five areas — teaching, research, citations, international outlook and industry outcome. To improve on these indicators, we need to begin with two simple but gigantic steps: eradication of corruption in faculty appointments, and massive investment on building world-class infrastructure in the universities. The recent announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to spend Rs 1 lakh crore on revitalising infrastructure in the next four years is thus a much-needed initiative.
 
This must be accompanied by a slew of other important measures. The government may constitute an All-India Teaching Service (ITS) to attract the brightest minds to academics and to weed out corruption and nepotism. The selection of candidates can be done along the lines of that for the All-India Services conducted by the Union Public Service Commission. The candidates thus selected through a rigorous method of examination should undergo training in teaching, research and administration for a year before they are inducted into the system. Currently, teaching is one of the few professions in which one has the enormous responsibility of building future leaders, without themselves having any kind of training to do so.
 
The government also needs to initiate collaboration between universities and industries earnestly and urgently. This will have two benefits. One, universities will begin to perform better on the indicator of research income per academic staff member. Two, scholars from the Sciences will be able to directly contribute to the ‘Make in India’ initiative. Their efforts, combined with the management skills of the social scientists, will help bridge the gap between academic knowledge and industrial output.

Scholars from the literature departments, on the other hand, should be encouraged to translate the vast repository of learning from ancient and medieval India. We need to start translation centres in every university to translate texts from Persian, Sanskrit and other Indian languages into English and vice versa so that India’s rich and diverse cultural heritage may be preserved and presented to the world. We also have an obligation to translate books on management, medicine, architecture, commerce and related disciplines from English into Indian languages for those who are not conversant with English.
 
One must add here that we can never have ‘Institutions of Eminence’ in the true sense at the university level without strengthening our primary and secondary education system. We need to develop various centres of excellence and eminence at the school level, to begin with. Universities and colleges must collaborate with and adopt one government school each from their vicinity and give them innovative pedagogical tools. Several research scholars may contribute to this exercise of laying a strong foundation for students at an early stage. After Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), it is time to think of Academic Social Responsibility (ASR) to restore the lost glory of Takshashila and Nalanda.
 
(The writer teaches English at Deen Dayal Upadhyaya College, University of Delhi)
 

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How to revive Indian universities

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