Higher Education and Ph.D’s in indian universities

One common thing I notice in India including high-level Govt. or Industry Forums is that whenever we discuss about higher education, the entire discussion shifts to IIT’s, IIM’s and sometimes IISc as if others practically don’t exist. Similarly on University-Industry interaction one shifts to CSIR. I think if generalisations are done from such a narrow base of experiential opinions (often not even studied in a systematic form), and extrapolated to whole of the country and recommendations made, there will not even be "hava mahals". They will be in stratosphere or exosphere! While I respect these elite experiences (India needs them too) but to deal all others in contempt as if other experiences are meaningless, then we cannot create a Knowledge Society. Let us not forget the absolute numbers involved in the demography of India and the texture of Indian GDP.

It is such a narrow thinking which makes people not to think about humanities as a part of higher education! How can anybody be a good researcher or academic if one is not curious, respectful and sensitive to other areas of epistemology? Incidentally IIT Bombay has a Humanities department which produces Ph.D’s – even discounting purely the economics types, there are people in linguistics and philosophy. There are young scholars and they seem to be very motivated. No doubt other institutions have many such students. 

So let the dialogue of higher education and Ph.D’s cover the 18000 – odd colleges in India in addition to University departments. If for nothing else, all these colleges have Ph.D holding persons as Professors, Asstt. Professors, not just in Universities alone. I am aware of people from these colleges registering for Ph.D’s. The facts of what has happened to engineering Ph.D’s, (whose production is going down), need  take away the dialogue to one obscure corner, forgetting these realities of India.

In the overall, Indian Industry employs about 50,000 Ph.D’s. If intake is less now, it is due to the overall saturation of employment in many mature and older Industries (as it is with national labs of ISRO, BARC, CSIR, ICAR, Central Universities etc) whose current intakes are low; mostly as replacements for retirees plus small additions.).

New demands and the massive expansion is in relatively low value (comparison to global developed country standards) operations in newly created industries. Hence the demand for researchers is low. Most of our IT sector has a very poor R&D expenditure by sales turnover ratio. Only some of Pharma sector industries have a healthy ratio of 5 – 6%. In other words, currently Indian industry or agriculture is not driven by R&D/technology intensive activity. Most of them are in the ‘follower stages’. Also very little of the research output of CSIR, IIT etc have reached market place. This is what I explain with an analogy that individual molecules succeeding in such actions; naturally with low impacts on the overall economy or business. I myself am personally aware of 300 such academics/research scientists who have good interesting and fruitful interactions with Industry. My best guess is that we will have about 2000 of them all over India but at individual molecular levels (such persons are there in Industrial in-house units as well without being appreciated by their own higher managements!).

Now coming to more clustered activities (I say it is nano i.e. a few molecules coming together but still not big enough cluster to form solid or liquid! Some other persons refer to crucible effect.) it is not just NMTLI which has done a good efforts with 50. There are other examples from DST, TDB, TIFAC, DSIR’s PATSER scheme, DBT, DAE, ISRO etc which have together about 500 or more examples. TIFAC-CORE (Centres for Relevance and Excellence) have unique (non-IIT, non-IISc) scheme of Industry directly financially contributing to colleges/academic Institutions about 25 in all ranging from Match Making industries to advanced pharma to IT etc. All these have contributed many small clusters focussed in specific areas, to the overall scene of Industry – Academia interaction and Advanced research including Ph.D. BITS Pilani is another low cost, all-India experience. Another recent development is that about 300 or more R&D Centres are being operated in India by foreign MNC’s and the number are growing. It proves that output of the general (often disparaged) higher education system has vitality; men and women scientists hired for these foreign R&D centres are ordinary Indians coming from various parts of India.

But bigger clusters (beyond aggregation of several molecules) which can trigger further build up around them and later massive reproduction as it happened around Standford, North Carolina Triangle or Israel etc have not taken place in India. Then persons with advanced degrees like Ph.D. will be in demand and also University Professors will "automatically" know what Industry may want in advance. (If one has to await an Industry to tell what researches/courses are required, then U-I interaction will take place only at individual molecular levels).

Even when such a self-replicating demand takes place (which will require really good venture capital, not like the current ones which normally chase bandwagons !), still a large number of Ph.D’s have to still spend majority of their time in an academic set up. Industry absorption will still be smaller in comparison. That is where the real "catch" is in India. Thanks to (!!) micro-management of UGC, AICTE etc which specify how many Ph.D’s are to be there in faculty for recognition / approval etc and how to regulate promotion with M.Phil above or with Ph.D, there is a demand for Ph.D’s even in Humanities! That is why the demand-supply law regulates the Ph.D production whatever one may say from roof-tops of S&T/Academic establishments or from high level committees.

Most engineering colleges manage the Ph.D stipulation for the Director/Principal etc by getting Ph.D’s from ISRO, BARC, CSIR, IIT’s etc regular retired or voluntary retired. A fresh engineering Ph.D. won’t like to go to such colleges and old Universities/IIT’s have very little opening.

Totally outside the Govt. regulated system but due to obsessions with single point entry tests (JEE, CAT etc), there is a large non-academic industry which is a non-trivial part of our GDP ! Coaching classes. Some best minds go there as it gives money.

Therefore unless we can create an environment in which an individual researcher in a National Lab (in small percentage) or an University (in much larger percentages), is respected and enabled to pursue life time pursuit of research (science, humanities, engineering etc) and can have a social recognition (not awards please!!), the academics/researchers will be automatically incentivised to chase "positions of power" or money (which by itself is a power !). That is the main reason Indian science research is really a follower/laggard type. If society/governance systems reward and respect only Academic Administrators and Academic-Politicians, then youth will aspire for such positions/ Since openings are low and upward raising is never sure in academic/S&T systems (unlike for IAS, IFS, IIM’s etc), ambitious youth go for such positions in IAS, MBA etc. I will urge reading of an article on Prof T R Seshadri which appeared in a publication of Vigyan Prasar – an Institution under Department of Science & Technology [DREAM 2046 March 2008 by Dr Subodh Mahanti]. My best guess is that about 2000 – 3000 Seshadri’s in all fields have "died" (physically alive of course) in Indian labs/Universities though Govt. pours Rs/35,000 crore per annum (this year non plan + plan) for Indian S&T sector.

Incidentally it is hoped that humanities will receive a special grants for advanced research instead of being starved by UGC. This is an important recommendation to be made by everybody interested in higher education.

Coming back to the question of respecting the Researcher, it would mean drastically changing the hierarchy of Vice Chancellor, Dean, etc. in Universities and by removing the apartheid of affiliated colleges. It will mean a drastic change to all of administrative and financial rules to delegate powers to all the faculty except for a few things like vigilance cases, dismissal etc. Even for recruitment, there has to be a large say by the research/academic faculty, if there is some biases of "networks", so be it. If people cannot work together, one cannot hope for creativity which is crucial for research.

For those who think that outputs from most of our non-IIT, non-IIT, non-institutions, elite are irrelevant, let us look at numbers. Even many persons who excell in North America (estimated to be some 2.5 million) are not all from IIT’s etc. Numbers won’t match. It is the ordinary colleges and Universities which have shaped them. So with most of personnel in Industries though some vocal sections may say they are useless! Then why they rush to book these students from ordinary engineering colleges at 5th Semesters! Also let us look at the total composition of IT, ITES, Telecom, B.Tech etc sectors let alone other sectors.

We have to recognise that there is a place for various diverse capabilities given the diversities and the fine texture of Indian GDP generation. No question that all these averages have to be raised up continually. But only a narrow peak occurring in a few places does not add to the total area under the curve required for the huge growing economy and especially aspiring youth who are ready to go out to make a living if they cannot get right incomes in India.

I would also recommend reading of an article by Dr D Lal in Current Science – Volume 68, Number 9, 10th May 1995 “The Character of Science in India : Then and Now”.

Those who desire to read this article by Dr Lal or one on Dr T.R. Seshadri may contact me in this website.