UNION minister for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh, who revels in controversies but always manages to stir up a debate, recently criticised the IITs and the IISc of not being world class because of their poor record in research and the quality of their faculties.
Though Union Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal tried to come to their rescue, most people agreed that Ramesh had a point.
Prof M K Surappa, director, IIT Ropar, Punjab, partially agrees with the comments made by Ramesh while looking at the larger picture of higher education in the country.
Surappa, a professor in material engineering department of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), is currently on deputation to the IIT, Ropar. On a visit to Bangalore, he spoke to Rashmi Menon of Deccan Herald about the obstacles facing higher education.
How would you describe the quality of higher education in the country?
Higher education in our country is reasonably good but it could be better. Despite better resources, we are not able to generate quality output i.e. impact of average citation per paper is low. This is a fact. While there has been an increase in infrastructure, the quality of publications has not been proportionate. Only a handful of faculty publishes a lot of research and the ambience in many of the universities is deplorable.
Some of the reasons for these are dearth of committed teachers, scholars and readers to emulate from, nurturing of talent by teachers and universities, the quality of vice chancellors etc. Another problem is lack of creative, out-of-the-box thinking. Besides tutorial hours, students and faculty need to have interactions outside classrooms too.
The students just roam around or indulge in activities where they don’t use their academic knowledge. Then, where is the question of nurturing talent. The salary given to faculty is not an issue. After the Sixth Pay Commission, the salary of faculty is quite good. However, a good faculty could always supplement his income by taking up projects on consultancy. Today, knowledge is power and if you are qualified and motivated, you can earn well. The government must concentrate on undergraduate level programmes and make them world class. Only then the problem in higher education will get solved.
Do you feel that the quality of PhD papers has gone down?
Although the number of PhD publications are picking up, the average impact factor or citation per paper is still low. It does not even match China or some other countries for that matter. So, while India may rank tenth in the total number of publications, our rank in impact factor is much lower. What we need is quality PhDs. After all, it is a masterpiece; should you not be bringing out some new knowledge in it? Another problem is having made PhD compulsory for promotions, the doctorate degree has become a racket. Some people who are not even worth MTech degree are getting PhDs. What we need at undergraduate level are people with good teaching skills, who do small project reports passionately.
Is the synergy between academia and industry taking place in the country?
The interaction between industry and academia is definitely happening, especially in IITs and IISc. Many multinational companies are giving projects or looking for expertise in these institutions. So, in a way, it is a different kind of outsourcing.
However, you need to be selective in choosing the projects and it should not become a routine. We have accumulated knowledge but now we need to translate this knowledge to solve even mundane problems afflicting our country. With inter-disciplinary knowledge now, it is easier to link knowledge and translate it to solve actual problems in the society. We must stop aping the west.
Are the grants and incentives provided by government to pursue research being under utilised by the university and state governments?
Yes. The kind of opportunities in the form of scholarships, fellowships, etc, is much more than what they were a decade or two ago. Yet, state governments are not taking advantage of it. For instance, if there are 10,000 fellowships, some states like Karnataka are using just one-third of it.
Even the research outputs of universities are far from satisfactory. For instance, the 21 universities in the state have been able to generate only 15,143 research papers a year, while the IISc alone has produced 27,000. This is more than all the other state universities put together.
Also, a paltry 108 students (from Karnataka) entered into IITs in 2009 with the figures not showing much change in 2010. A state like Andhra Pradesh produced 1651 students, who cleared JEE.
What are your concerns regarding higher education in Karnataka?
One of the biggest problems is appointment of university vice chancellors. It is pathetic. The appointments are politically driven and go by casteism. People who have been charged with scientific plagiarism, misconduct are appointed in the university system. The whole system has to change by flushing out political leaders and detaching the universities from communal politics.
If the government does not take corrective measures now, it will be difficult to reverse it. Another problem is that our political advisors are pseudo educationalists. The government should allow eminent people in education field to take part in the decision making. Bangalore has the largest number of scientific institutions and research bodies, yet few people from the state are taking advantage of this opportunity. A metamorphosis has to occur, only then can our university system become centres of excellences.
(Published in Deccan Herald)