Two recent events seem like missteps in India’s efforts to chart a mature and productive path in the realm of higher education. The first of these events is the effort of the government to produce an education policy and the second is its intent to foster “institutions of eminence”.
The idea of an education policy has socialist, and even communist, overtones that are not in tune with a government that leans to the right. I wonder what logic prompted the top-down effort to create institutions of eminence in such a selective manner that leaves the vast majority of educational institutions struggling and mired in the deathly quicksand of bureaucratic control and mediocrity.
At one time, the IITs were created with exactly the same intentions and in a similar manner. But the performance of the IITs has been largely uninspiring. Three factors can be blamed for this situation — too much government control, largely mediocre faculty and no programme or activity to connect with India’s challenges and needs so as to inspire students. As an example of government meddling, consider this amusing two-line cryptic resolution adopted for all the IITs a year ago by the IIT Council: “It was decided that each IIT may adopt at least one National Laboratory near to it and enter into an MoU mutually beneficial to both”.
Of course, the public at large perceives an IIT to be a sort of super institution meant for talented children. And they do attract very smart students. But smart students must be matched by highly inspiring faculty, and by creating programmes of learning that are in tune with societal challenges. Further, these institutions must be given time, freedom and an enlightened leadership to mature.
In the initial phase, the IITs failed to meet the urgent need of grasping the special aspirations and requirements of an independent India; they failed to invent and innovate to address the country’s needs. Not one IIT aided our space or nuclear programmes. When it came to building bridges, roads or dams, there was hardly any creative input from any IIT.
Of course, each of the first five IITs was, in the initial years, tethered to a well-known institution abroad and did adopt in limited ways some aspects of a reasonable curriculum. But it was not done in a well-thought out manner that would have allowed originality to flourish in the Indian context. The one change, dictated by the American model, which the IITs adopted to break the colonial mould, was to have a semester system. But they failed to allow their students to truly imbibe and flourish under a trans-disciplinary system, which the semester system can allow with greater ease than an annual mode of examination. And over time, the faculty tended to settle into harmonious mediocrity with the usual, but few, outstanding exceptions. The tragedy is these exceptions failed to create lasting and great traditions.
Also, the IITs and the government neglected to put in place a major virtue of the American system that attracts, recognises and rewards good faculty at the global level. The IITs also failed to recognise that diversity is the key to survival and they could not develop outstanding qualities and features that would distinguish one IIT from another. For instance, the IITs have a joint entrance examination that looks for identical attributes and abilities in every aspirant. This, in itself, denotes that there is nothing special that any individual IIT offers. The entrance examination does not differentiate between any special qualities that would make the abilities required of a civil engineering aspirant stand out and be recognised as different from the abilities needed of an electrical engineering aspirant.
Contrast this with MIT, Harvard and Caltech, which admit students into their respective engineering programmes but through differing selection processes even while relying a great deal on SAT. Incidentally, SAT itself has come under criticism in recent times. Another illustration of their diversity is how these notable US institutions teach freshman calculus, but in ways that differ from each other. Has any of our IITs created an economically powerful entrepreneurial ecosystem in its immediate neighbourhood or elsewehere? No path-breaking knowledge-based idea of practical import, such as the search engine Google, seems to have emerged from the IITs. They are largely teaching institutions and if someone of the stature of N R Narayana Murthy bemoans the inadequacies of IIT graduates, then we need to be worried.
Indian universities have an even more disappointing track record. Their only major innovation in recent years is the adoption of a semester mode exemplified by the fact that, more often than not, the courses they teach have been mechanically split from an annual mode into two halves. It would have been a magical transformation had they taken advantage of the semester system to breed a pedagogy that engenders trans-disciplinary learning blended with project-based activities for real-world knowledge acquisition and creation. The best way to gauge the lacklustre quality of Indian universities is to ask if any Nobel laureate from any part of the world has ever expressed willingness to join any of our universities as faculty.
In addition, the restrictive and overbearing policies of government agencies have made true innovation and experimentation near impossible. For instance, the choice-based credit system, a mutilated version of an American concept, has forced universities to collectively drop diversity and adopt a largely common curriculum imposed from above, compelling them to sink to abysmal levels. Universities are failing at an alarming pace in their responsibility to foster research. India has consistently put its money on specialised research institutes that lack students and do not deliver the way a university can, as in the US. Another mechanism India has not paid attention to is the use of government funding agencies to raise and foster high quality research. These funding agencies have not nudged research in the universities towards the needs and challenges of the nation, and of society, as much as they could have.
We must not fail to recognise that the American system of higher education has generated its own set of serious problems and drawbacks. So, India must chart its own original path. Some valuable lessons could be imbibed from our own heritage: Ask what allowed the calculus to be discovered by Bhaskaracharya and Madhavacharya hundreds of years before the time of Isaac Newton. In modern times, much can also be learned from the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology at Delhi. It is truly autonomous, serves the society well, has good and wise leadership and faculty and students to match. Its outstanding record may be because two successive state governments wisely left it alone and did not burden it with any policy!