Pursuit of academic excellence

Pivotal: By tapping the young and nurturing their inquisitive spirit, we can lay seeds of a research-intense culture.

While India is striding ahead in various sectors, experts consider that the country’s education system has a long way to go to ensure quality learning. Our visions, policies and practices for bettering the education system have often failed to exhibit clarity, cohesion and committed follow-up. 

Students grumbling over their teachers’ lack of passion and competence; teachers complaining about disinterested students; both jumping in to proclaim “It’s the system!” and resultant learning that reflects poorly thought-out objectives and outcomes are common in our times and spaces. As a result, from individuals to institutions, we have failed to deliver academic quality in the global arena.

Indian educational institutions rarely figure among the world’s top universities. Independent India has not produced even a single Nobel laureate in science. To be precise, it is more than 86 years since we produced a Nobel laureate in the field. The last was Sir C V Raman, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the Raman Effect. In literature, we have Rabindranath Tagore. He won it almost 105 years ago! 

These are clear proofs of our unenviable standards. No wonder, Shashi Tharoor, in a TED talk, wondered: “With 17% of the world’s brains, why do we have only 2.8% of the world’s research output coming out of the country?”

Of course, rankings, Nobel prizes and expert opinions are merely indicators. And there are indeed a few exceptional academicians and institutions which go against this current by offering education of global standard.

To become a knowledge society, we need to look into the causes of the current situation and re-envision the standards structurally, financially and culturally. 

Bridging gaps

While our educational institutions are philosophically built on the principles of a liberal and socialist model, the contemporary reality is in contrast to it. As sociologist and writer Andre Beteille observes, our academic structures have practically become yet another site for reproducing social inequalities. On the basis of their class position, children end up either in State Board, CBSE, ICSE or IB.

A similar template is operational at the higher education level. The standard and rigour of education is nowhere close to being called uniform in these varied categories. So, the institution which the student joins influences everything from their aspirations to achievements. If our vision is to create a knowledge community, then we should be careful to avoid such stratification of the educational process, and offer the same rights and opportunities to every student right from the grassroots level. Additionally, recruiting qualified and passionate faculty, creating problem-based and research-oriented pedagogy, strengthening current robust centres of excellence, setting up new fundamental and advanced research centres are other structural measures that need to be taken. 

Financial boost

Let us consider our government’s financial support for research and development progress as research is a pivotal mode of assessing the quality of our knowledge systems. UNESCO’s data reveals how while countries like Israel and South Korea strategically invest more than 4% of their gross domestic product on Research and Development (R&D), India’s expenditure stands at 0.85%. The status quo has remained for more than a decade.

In contrast, China has almost doubled its R&D investment in the past two decades and is flexing its intellectual muscles. It is not just countries, but even global innovation companies have started investing heavily on R&D. The educational institutions are generally assessed based on the research volume, research income, research productivity and research influence. Most academicians would agree that it is a fair and robust standard. A country like the United States would fare well in these parameters and assert its intellectual supremacy. This is because the US attracts best minds from across the world to work for it in its many, well-funded, state-of-the-art research centres.

In contrast, many of our research institutions are cash-strapped and researchers find the working conditions and their aspirations at loggerheads. So, the budget for boosting Indian education needs to be prioritised and strategically hiked.

Cultural shifts 

Anybody who has standing in research would know that research as a culture cannot begin all of a sudden. When one comes from a primary and secondary education background that is largely driven by the rote learning method, it is hard to switch to a culture of research required at the higher education level.

However, there is no linkage between the two levels of education. One of the first initiatives required to build a research culture would be to acknowledge that children are inherently curious by nature. By tapping the young and nurturing their inquisitive spirit, we can lay seeds of a research-intense culture. 

However, in many schools, children are not encouraged to question or state their opinion but are taught to agree to the views of the elders. This, in turn, becomes a tool to impose unreflective obedience. In our family structures too, the urge to question is often perceived as an attitude of arrogance.

Renowned philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti once stated, “In obedience, there is always fear, and fear darkens the mind.” He had even elaborated on the perils of obedience as a form of violence that nurtures conformity. Eminent management expert Gary Hamel also dismisses the role of obedience. In his research, Hierarchy of Human Capability, he locates obedience at the bottom of the table and asserts initiative, passion and creativity as the most valuable assets. He concludes that obedience is an overrated and insignificant value in the context of the millennials. As educationists, we need to promote a culture of free, open and a non-hierarchical intellectual enquiry. 

If we are to make a complex and heterogeneous entity like India into a knowledge powerhouse, then we indeed need to re-envision how we deal with our people, processes and educational platforms structurally, financially and culturally. 

(The authors are professors of Humanities and Social Sciences, Christ, Bengaluru) 

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