07 May 2007   |   News

Indian universities – failing India’s research base

The Indian economy may be drawing nervous glances from Europe but its universities, famous for churning out 2.5 million graduates every year, are faltering.

Postgraduates: the key to India’s research future. Picture courtesy IIIT, Bangalore
The Indian economy may be drawing nervous glances from Europe but there are alarming indications that its universities, famous for churning out 2.5 million graduates every year, are faltering. A lack of funds, vision and leadership has whittled most of India’s universities down to graduate-producing centres, losing out on the research and innovation fronts.

So when the 150-year-old University of Mumbai announced in March that it would like to explore the idea of listing on the stock exchange to raise funds for its infrastructure overhaul and student scholarships, it took the nation by surprise. The government in New Delhi termed it “unprecedented” and the Ministry of Human Resource Development declared that state-funded institutions may not trade on the stock market.

“[The universities] have become hotbeds of politics. You cannot merely give them funds for restructuring and think it’d happen.”

Vice chancellor Vijay Khole, a biophysicist and an ambitious administrator, justifies his move by citing examples from countries like the UK, Australia, China and Korea which have their universities traded on the stock market. “We are studying the feasibility of going public, the legal aspect as well as the ways to demonstrate our credibility to the corporate sector,” Khole told Science|Business.

According to Indian law, state-funded universities cannot engage in commercialisation, which trading on the stock market implies. “Just because no other Indian university has thought of this before, doesn’t mean we cannot explore this option,” Khole argues.

Kohle says that even though the federal government has increased funds for state universities in recent years, ambitious ones like his will need more money to run special programmes. His university has received extra funds of $34 million from the finance ministry and the Department of Atomic Energy to initiate advanced programmes in basic science and nanoscience. But he needs more funds to set up a department of film and television studies and a centre for studies in public health.

Graduates will not sustain growth

But Khole’s attempt to give a face-lift to his university is a drop in the ocean. The scientific community has been crying out about the country’s falling research output, reaching a crescendo in July 2006 when the noted scientist C.N.R. Rao, also the chairman of the scientific advisory board to the Prime Minister, wrote a letter to the PM stating his concern. “Even our top institutions are not performing as well in terms of research papers and the number of research students they train. The number of research papers published by scientists (per capita) is alarmingly low, being less than one in many of our leading institutions,” Rao said.

For his part, Rao has been the driving force in setting up five Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs), two of which came into operation in 2006 in Pune and Kolkata. The third, in the northern city of Mohali, will start taking admissions from the 2007 academic year. Two more will be set up in Thiruvanathapuram and Bhopal. These institutes have a focus on research and provide integrated masters and PhD programmes.

“We intend to have 1500 students and 200 faculty at a mature stage,” says K.N. Ganesh, director of IISER in Pune. With a budget of about $100 million for five years, Ganesh feels IISERs can afford good infrastructure and attract research talent.

The federal Department of Biotechnology has also upped its ante by setting up centres for higher learning in translational and clinical research. It has also set up a regional Centre for Biotechnology Training and Education in collaboration with Unesco to be operation this year. But given the pace of current growth and the research vacuum despite the 300-odd universities in India, academics feel enough is not being done.

“We need a 10-fold increase in the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), the Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT), and the Indian Institute of Science. We also need better governance,” says S. Sadagopan, director of the IIIT in Bangalore. According to an IDC report released on 2 May, the turnover of the IT and IT-enabled industry is poised to exceed $100 billion by 2011, but Sadagopan is as frustrated as other basic science professionals in the country.

The United States graduates about 75,000 engineering students a year, of whom 15,000 go for masters and doctoral programmes. India, meanwhile graduates 300,000 engineering students a year – but fewer than 600 continue on for PhDs while about 1,000 opt for masters, says Sadagopan. “China is ahead, producing 2,000 PhDs from 500,000 undergraduates.”

In engineering research, particularly computer science and electrical engineering, India is way below the international average, even though the Indian institutes get “very high quality students who do well”. “But we can take credit for not doing any value depletion, if not for much value addition,” argues Sadagopan, who blames most universities for “value depletion”.

It’s a charge the universities cannot easily absolve themselves of. “They have become hotbeds of politics. You cannot merely give them funds for restructuring and think it’d happen,” says Rao, explaining why he is pushing for new institutions rather than reviving Indian universities. They cannot be revamped in the short term, he insists.

IISER director Ganesh couldn’t agree more. “One doesn’t know where to start,” he says, admitting his institute and others can never match the universities in capacity. “We need to ignite the young minds towards research which can be done at the undergrad level, which only universities can do.”

Turnaround time

Grappling with the crisis, New Delhi constituted an “M.M. Sharma TaskForce on Strengthening Basic Science Research in Universities” a few years ago, and its report is now in. Its recommendations include creating 1,000 research scientist positions at various teaching levels to be filled in five years, and setting up an expert committee to review scientists’ performance.

“Less than 10 per cent of the universities match international standards.”

The taskforce has also suggested setting up 10 networking centres in basic sciences, two each in physical, chemical, life and material sciences, and in mathematics). They would be set up in universities in different locations to promote collaborative research, give access to advances facilities and offer training in cutting edge areas. The taskforce has also stressed the importance of increasing the number of PhDs fivefold in ten years.

“Less than 10 per cent of the universities match international standards,” says Kota Harinayarana, former vice-chancellor of Hyderabad University and the leading aeronautical scientist behind India’s indigenous light combat aircraft programme.

The pinch is felt by international industry as well, which has recently been flocking to India for R&D. According to the Ernst & Young Global Biotechnology Report for 2006, close to 200 companies, both foreign and Indian, have established R&D centres in India. “In the ast five years the private sector has woken up to the opportunities in research. If we continue sustained restructuring efforts for next five years, there’s hope of reviving 60 to 70 universities, which is sufficient to turn around the research scenario,” says Harinarayana.

The key statutory body in higher education, the University Grants Commission, has begun implementing some of these recommendations but it’s hard to tell how soon the impact will emerge. Both universities and implementing agencies are bogged by the same bureaucracy, which is often paraded as a “democratic system”. And as Alan Colman, the Scottish scientist and CEO of the Singapore-based stem cell company ESI said on a recent visit to Bangalore, “India is too democratic to get things done fast.”