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In recent times a few leaders, notably the ex-President APJ Abdul Kalam and current President Pranab Mukherjee, have laid stress on improving quality of education and research in India. Kalam, in his interaction with students across the country, emphasised the point that India needs to engage in quality education and research at various levels. Mukherjee also highlighted upon the dire need of improvement in quality of education and research in higher education institutions. The major concern Mukherjee expressed about is India’s failure in creating world-class institutions. Keeping in view the fact that the government has established IITs, IIMs, NITs and central universities, and has made available substantial funding for research, Kalam’s and Mukherjee’s concerns raise several questions. The most important is what fails Indian institutions improve their quality and ranking, especially in terms of quality research output. The answer could be the lack of scope for creativity and innovation in our education system.
Unfortunately, India does not have many quality institutions to offer undergraduate education. Then there are a limited numbers of career paths unlike in developed countries. The students graduating from schools have the aim of enrolling themselves in those limited number of institutions offering professional degrees, primarily in medicine and engineering. They are under tremendous parental and social pressure to join these institutions in the country and that too in a few selected disciplines where placement is more or less assured of. For example, to get admission in an institution like BITS Pilani, almost 1.5 lakh students register to compete for a few thousand seats every year. Getting admission into IITs is equally competitive. The students need to work very hard, forgetting about any other activities during the last two years of their schooling.
Once they are selected for admission, it is almost like achieving the goal in life and many of them lose motivation. This is further aggravated as many of them do not know how to handle freedom in the hostel life, away from the watchful eyes of their parents and also knowing that the placement cell of the institute would take care to arrange a good job for them at the end of their studies. In a number of cases, due to parental pressures, they target to get admission in a branch that will fetch them a fat salary at the end of their study. However, due to their rankings in the admission tests, they get admission in some other branch, which de-motivates them.
There is another category of students whose expectations about the institutes become very high due to the hype created by the media and the society at large, but after joining they find that the quality of infrastructure is ordinary and the academic system not challenging enough—again de-motivating them.
The situation is further aggravated as the quality of teaching at all levels (elementary, secondary and tertiary) has not improved over the years. The existing teaching-learning process at the undergraduate level is not up to the mark. We still follow the age-old techniques of teaching, have failed to understand the impact of technology on young minds and have not reoriented our teaching methodology to attract them towards the subjects. We are not growing inquisitive minds. Encouragement to independent thinking, which contributes in innovation and research, is missing. The undergraduate education does not prepare students to get attracted to choose research as a career option. Many students, who are genuinely interested in research, do not think that proper environment is available in Indian universities and go abroad.
For any academic institution to go up on the ranking scale requires to be research-focused and for that it needs to have a large supply of quality research scholars at PhD level. In the absence of sufficient number of genuinely interested and motivated research scholars, the universities are unable to produce excellent research outputs. Moreover, since in most Indian institutions research has been linked to career growth, people tend to prefer easy-going researches which require lesser creativity. There are a few social-related reasons for not being able to attract students towards research.
Hence, if the Indian institutions aspire to produce high quality research and also to enter into the list of the best in the world, serious efforts have to be made at various levels. Starting from school education, the course curriculum needs to be redesigned so as to create inquisitiveness in the mind of the students, which will only happen if research component is introduced at the elementary levels. This is a long drawn process. To improve the supply of good quality students for research, undergraduate education has to be strengthened. The social mindset will only change if the PhD scholars are compensated well and their efforts are adequately recognised.
AK Sarkar is senior professor, Dept of Civil Engineering;
SK Choudhary is associate professor, Dept of Humanities and Social Sciences. Birla Institute of Technology & Science, Pilani. Views are personal