Monday, 11 May 2015

Globalizing Indian Universities

It is a well consolidated aspiration in our country today that our universities be world class. And correctly so since the presence of immense talent and potential is unquestionable. It is almost as if a great force has been in check for a long time, a great energy has been simmering just beneath the surface that wants to burst through all at once and manifest itself as a state of excellence that the whole world cannot but acknowledge. The urgency of this aspiration is palpable and expresses itself most frequently as an immense frustration with the status-quo and a desire for almost immediate change. I, for one, am glad for the restlessness that has built up as it holds the promise of meaningful action and a change for the better.

The first question I pose to myself is: What would be a meaningful tangible indicator that our universities are “globally relevant”? The answer that makes sense to me is: When students from across the world, including what are today the most advanced nations, want to come and learn from us.

Think about it. Isn’t that what essentially makes many american and european universities, for example, globally relevant? That students from across the world aspire to go study there? And why is it that this is so? Again, the answer is simple: Because they are at the forefront of knowledge. Period.

So the first condition we need to satisfy if students from all over the world are to look towards us for knowledge is to be at the absolute frontier in every field. And the only way we can achieve this is by committing ourselves to knowledge discovery at the very cutting edge and pushing the frontiers forward ourselves. As far as science and technology go (which are the domains I work in), here's my conviction on the way forward: In the pure sciences and mathematics, this translates into committing ourselves to working on the most fundamental, important and challenging problems in different areas while in the applied sciences, engineering and technology, we commit ourselves to seeking solutions that are second to none in their precision, efficiency, creativity, comprehensiveness, wisdom and reach of influence. It is certainly possible that the approaches some of us take and the solutions we propose, whether for problems in the pure sciences or applied, are different from the prevailing points of view. That is perfectly fine. But the commitment to excellence must be absolute. And this is not a slow, gradual commitment to make. It must be immediate and emphatic. Now. There is absolutely no point in looking for short cuts. There are none.

I do realize that what I have just said is not going to be easy. There is an entire mindset shift that needs to happen at the level of how we perceive an academic's role. Discovery of knowledge needs to be emphasized as much as its transmission. [I discuss this in more detail here: http://strike-a-pause.blogspot.in/2016/02/striking-balance-between-teaching-and.html]. Norms related to academic duties and expectations to be met for career progression need to reflect the right balance between teaching and research. Appropriate infrastructure and manpower investments must be made wherever required to enable state of the art research, particularly in the experimental sciences. And all this has to be backed by well thought out administrative policies that are committed to efficiency and the sustenance of an overall atmosphere that is cordial and committed to excellence. But if we are intent on the goal, serious about our aspirations and willing to bend our backs in effort, then I cannot see why success would elude us.

To understand where things have gone wrong in our country from the viewpoint of knowledge discovery, consider this: Pretty much any book dealing with any field of science and technology (I don't know enough about other fields to comment on them) that you pick up today contains knowledge that has by and large been discovered outside our country. Our input, either in terms of modern knowledge or aspects of traditional knowledge that may still be relevant and worthwhile, is pretty much non existent. One of the reasons this has happened is we have misunderstood the academic's role at a very fundamental level. We have turned things upside down. Our (mis)understanding is that professors are meant to primarily be in classrooms i.e. they are teachers first then anything else. What this translates to is professors (at least in science and technology) in our country being required to simply assimilate knowledge discovered elsewhere and spend hours and hours in the classroom to pass it on to the next generation. Then comes all this noise about how professors should be solving problems that in fact our bachelors and masters degree holders should be. At the end of it all, while I do have tremendous respect for the contribution made in terms of teaching generations of students, this is how much value addition happens in terms of knowledge discovery: Zero.

If we don't correct our understanding now, we will still be in the same boat fifty years from today. We will still be reading books that contain knowledge discovered by other people elsewhere. Neither would we have made a significant contribution to the global knowledge community in modern knowledge nor would we have been able to revive those aspects of our traditional knowledge that may still be relevant and worthwhile but can get lost in obscurity due to not being studied systematically. And if we don't consolidate our identity in the field of knowledge, we are going to stay behind overall. We will always be the world's backyard. Many may come and "Make in India" but we will never really reach the level where we "Create in India" and capture the world's imagination. You can be absolutely assured of this.

An academic is a discoverer of knowledge first, a philosopher first, a thinker first, then a teacher. An academic's primary job is to be at the very frontiers of knowledge and take our understanding of ourselves and the universe we live in further. Academics need to be given the space to immerse themselves wholly in knowledge, spending almost all their time in their offices and labs, contemplating deeply on fundamental problems and challenges in their fields, guiding their research groups, and from time to time (no more than 3-4 hours a week), delivering lectures of the highest quality to students. If a higher number of academics need to be hired to maintain this emphasis on knowledge discovery and keep teaching loads under control, so be it.

Whatever I have said thus far is from the point of view of science and technology but I suppose a similar spirit would apply to many other fields too. And as soon as we talk about a university, it becomes imperative that all fields of knowledge thrive – not just a limited set.

This brings me to the next question I wish to pose:

If we wish to be a hub of knowledge, what fields of study can we offer to the world at large that are unique to us as a people?

Some answers that come to my mind immediately are:

1) Languages: Just look at the extent to which languages such as French, German and Spanish have become popular. And through these languages have become accessible vast storehouses of literature that open windows to cultures and histories of so many communities that have inhabited the Earth. Can we not offer our languages to the world in return. Tamil, Telugu, Sanskrit, Punjabi, Hindi, Bengali, Urdu…we have probably the most diversity and richness in languages that the world has ever known! And each of these languages is abundantly rich with literary expression. Can our universities not thrive in Indic language studies and literature and these departments open their doors to students from across the world?

2) Music: Pretty much every university of repute in the west has a music school where education in musical forms such as western classical and jazz is taken with utmost seriousness. Do we have the same emphasis on Indian music forms in our universities? Can anyone doubt the richness of our music forms such as Hindustani and Carnatic? Can we not have thriving music schools in our universities where students from across the world come, stay and learn?

3) Dance: Indian dance forms such as Kathak and Bharatnatyam are as rich and diverse as the Indian music forms. Do we have enough schools of dance in our universities where international students can come and learn from masters in these arts?

4) Vedic studies and Indian philosophical systems: Can we not have departments which offer the opportunity to the worldwide student community to come and learn these subjects from scholars and experts here?

These are niche disciplines and fields of study that we can offer to the worldwide student community uniquely. Since we have not had the tradition of “formal degrees being the only way” to master many such disciplines, we may need to use the concept of “Professor of Practice” to bring in the faculty. But we can make these disciplines thrive in our universities if we try. This will not only immediately make our universities globally relevant but also have a tremendously positive economic outcome in that it will generate employment for many many scholars, artists and practitioners by formally bringing them into the teaching profession. And the revenue generated when students from all over the world come and learn from them will serve towards taking our universities again to the great heights they had once reached.

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