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:]. 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.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

The quest to be numero uno in university rankings.

There's been a huge furore for some years now regarding how universities and institutes in India fare in "international rankings". I'm not quite sure, however, that we have taken a step back and consolidated our views on what these rankings mean for us and to what extent, if any, should we be participating in this "global race". This is an extremely important discussion to have in my opinion as it will set in place policies and priorities that have long term implications. The very direction we take in terms of the academic goals we pursue, the nature of research and development activity we encourage, the questions we ask and our methods and directions of inquiry, the training we impart to our students, the kind of opportunities we create for our graduates at the bachelors, masters and doctoral levels: everything depends on the academic agendas we embark on. And if our entire academic agenda must get decided by a quest to be number one in some system of evaluation, we need to at least make this choice consciously. Perhaps we choose to be evaluated by a system that already exists (and in the process shape ourselves after that). Or perhaps we take our own independent decision on both the long term goals we set for ourselves and the benchmarks we need to cross in the short and middle terms to ensure that we are actually making progress towards achieving them. Either which way, these choices and decisions need to be made with as much clarity of thought as possible.

I suppose one can view the overall debate from different directions. Two extremes that come to my mind are: (1) Let's not worry about getting ranked in any manner whatsoever by anyone at all and (2) Let's simply adopt and mould ourselves after systems that have evolved in other parts of the world and have been shaped by priorities and agendas that may be different from ours. Both these extremes do not hit the mark in my opinion. The former, while carrying an idealistic notion of complete self reliance, can basically make us lazy while justifying our ineptitude, inefficiency and lethargy by projecting ourselves as having taken an elevated standpoint that is not completely sincere. The latter, on the other hand, is akin to giving away our steering wheel to someone else instead of putting our own minds to challenges that face us and thinking for ourselves. That is being inept and lazy too.

What may be needed is that we come up with our own way of evaluating ourselves that is (a) aligned with our goals, aspirations, and very importantly, the mandate with which universities and institutes are established in our country and (b) provides rational feedback that can be used to improve our universities systematically. I present some thoughts here, first building up logical bases to emphasize particular aspects and then crystallizing them into measurable quantities that can be used as "ranking parameters". I come from a science and technology background and this will reflect in this post. I suppose, however, that one can carry out a similar analysis for other fields of study as well.

The mandate at hand (as I see it) is two fold: 1) Carry out cutting edge fundamental and applied research of the highest quality thus contributing towards knowledge creation and the solving of problems critical to our country's progress as well as human and environmental welfare in general and 2) Provide the best training possible at the bachelors, masters and doctoral levels in different disciplines thus creating a highly trained workforce for the nation's development and 

Let us take a look at the training aspect first. My evaluation would be based on the following two criteria:

1) The quality of teaching (both in terms of the depth with which different subjects are covered and the breadth of study available in terms of electives that students can choose from) and masters/doctoral level thesis/dissertation guidance that prevails at different universities/institutes.

Note that I have included electives and masters/doctoral level thesis/dissertation guidance here. This already brings into play the idea of discovering and pursuing one's subjects of interest to the level of research.

The quality of thesis/dissertation guidance at the masters and doctoral levels is in general directly correlated with how actively engaged faculty members themselves are in research or in deepening their scholarship in different areas. These faculty members can also develop and offer elective courses in their areas of expertise which can become a medium for students to explore different subjects and deepen their understanding in them, figure out their specific interests and potentially get engaged in research pursuits themselves. Thus every effort needs to be made to hire faculty members who are research/scholarship motivated and favourable conditions created for them to stay research/scholarship motivated and research/scholarship active. The first thing to be done towards creating such a research/scholarship intensive atmosphere in any university is to hire a sufficiently large number of high quality and academically serious faculty members so that teaching responsibilities are well spread out and each faculty member has ample time to pursue his/her research/scholarship interests (in contrast to a smaller faculty strength that is overburdened by teaching) [I discuss this aspect in more detail here:]. This then needs to be complemented by appropriate infrastructural, personnel and monetary support to ensure unhindered progress, well thought out administrative policies that are committed to efficiency and the sustenance of an overall atmosphere that is conducive to progress of knowledge as a whole with teaching and research & scholarship feeding into each other

It will thus be incumbent upon every university/institute in the country that wishes to be viewed with a degree of respect to actively seek, hire and retain the most qualified, competent and motivated faculty members that they can find and put in place policies and support mechanisms that enable them to pursue their academic goals as best possible.

Specific ranking parameters:

(a) Number of highly qualified faculty members.

(b) Quality of core academic curriculum at the masters and doctoral levels as evaluated by how up-to-date and educationally sound it is.

(c) The range and diversity of electives consistently offered in different disciplines.

(d) Quality of masters/doctoral level thesis/dissertation guidance as evaluated through feedback from peers. This will implicitly depend upon the infrastructural, personnel and monetary support provided to pursue research and development activities and I will list this as a parameter when I address the research aspect of our mandate.

(e)  Books written by faculty members (both at the technical level and those directed at the general audience) that receive national and global recognition.

2) The extent to which graduates in different disciplines either opt for higher studies or undertake careers in their core and allied areas.

I cannot emphasize the seriousness of this aspect enough. It relates to the very essence of why universities and institutes are established in the first place. And success in this aspect will depend not just on the universities/institutes themselves but on the rest of the society, the government and policy makers as well because the extent to which a well trained workforce can be absorbed meaningfully is directly dependent on the extent to which opportunities are available when students complete their respective academic programs at different levels.

Specific ranking parameters:

(a) Number of bachelors/masters degree holders either opting to study further or undertaking a career in their area of study (with due consideration to the interdisciplinary nature of many a subject).

(b) Number of PhD holders undertaking academic/scientific careers.

The second aspect I wish to emphasize has to do with the nature of research undertaken. Broadly speaking I consider that research meaningful which falls into one of the following three categories:

1) Fundamental research wherein the questions being asked are primarily curiosity driven and serve to further our quest for knowledge.

This aspect of research can often be the most misunderstood as one can wonder about the usefulness of such a pursuit. To correct this misunderstanding one simply needs to realize that knowledge is a worthwhile pursuit in itself as long as the curiosity is genuine. The desire to understand this universe better, to understand ourselves better, an appreciation of beauty, art, music, mathematics; these are worthwhile pursuits and reflect a refined intellect and personality. The tangible outcomes of such pursuits are scientific papers published in journals and presented at conferences (the contents of which can get absorbed in books over time if relevant/important enough), masters theses and doctoral dissertations and state of the art knowledge transmitted in university classrooms. An appreciation of this pursuit for the public at large can be built through seminars delivered for the general audience and books that bring our knowledge of different subjects up to date.

Specific ranking parameters:

(a) High quality journal and conference publications. My emphasis on “high quality” is firm. We need to stay mindful that the publication industry is a business too and guard against pressures to just keep churning out papers regardless of their quality. At the same time we need to guard against complacency and ensure that we take our research pursuits to the publication stage. There are journals in most subjects that have built a reputation for quality over the years. Plus it would be good to see journals originating from within the country build up a reputation by maintaining high refereeing standards and faculty members across our universities being encouraged to publish their findings in them.

(b) Masters theses and doctoral dissertations resulting from such fundamental research endeavours.

(c) Public seminars delivered to general audiences either in person or through media.

2) Applied research/consultancy aligned with national interests.

This is an aspect which requires a two way communication. There are some sectors where there is already ample scope for advanced applied research that directly contributes to advancement of the country. Some examples are: defence, space, energy, environment, water resources, hazard mitigation, transportation, etc. It would be good to see an increased involvement of academics in these sectors through sponsored research and consultancy projects and students' project/thesis work being aligned with progress in these areas. On the other hand there might be areas in which the country has yet to move forward to provide opportunities for such alignments. In such areas, there needs to be an increased input from academics at the level of policy making and course setting for the country's overall technological advancement.

Specific ranking parameters:

(a) Sponsored research and consultancy projects and technical reports submitted to the funding agencies/organizations for the same. The consideration of technical reports as a ranking parameter becomes specially important in those projects where it would be preferable for the technical output to stay confidential in national interest.

(b) High quality journal and conference publications or patents resulting from work carried out on these projects wherever it is not against national interest to publish/present findings in open forums.

(c) Masters theses and doctoral dissertations resulting from work carried out on these projects.

3) Advanced applied research directed towards betterment of the global human community at large.

Specific ranking parameters:

(a) High quality journal and conference publications or patents resulting from such work.

(b) Masters theses and doctoral dissertations resulting from such work.

I think if we create such a reference frame, define a paradigm that gives us a rational basis to set our goals and benchmark our progress towards the same, and use the feedback received when we evaluate ourselves periodically to keep improving, we would be able to talk of university rankings in a sense that is meaningful and of purpose to us. These would be our own rankings based on logical arguments that make sense to us and we wouldn't have to necessarily keep worrying about how the rest of the world views us.

It is my submission that we need to be clear about where we want to get and just move. And who knows, we might just set an example in the process.