A week after minister for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh put a question mark on research in Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes Management (IIMs), the government is contemplating one
of the many steps that are required to push universities on the road to quality.
As reported in Mint on Monday, the government may agree to an automatic 10% increase in the fee payable by students who attend the 450-odd universities under state control. This is a modest proposal. But even this minimal raise, if implemented, would be a welcome step.
Today most universities are nothing more than a combination of degree-distributing and salary-disbursing machines. Research—leave aside the quality question—is simply not a priority. There are, no doubt, some spots of excellence, but these are isolated examples in an otherwise desolate academic environment. There are many causes for this state of affairs, but two can be singled out easily.
For one, research output depends a lot on the demand for it. In this case, there has hardly been any—from the private sector (that prefers to shop for technology and scientific solutions abroad) and from the government alike. This goes a long way to explain why our best— the IITs and IIMs—produce excellent undergraduates, but the quality of their PhDs is so poor. This has been changing of late, but comes at a time when universities are hardly prepared for meeting these demands, however modest they may be.
At the same time, it is often held that universities are perhaps the single-most important route to social mobility for the vast number of Indians. If this aspiration is understandable, it has also led to questionable practices. For one, in almost all universities, it has led to a lowering of admission standards. Instead of being tightened to enable only the best and the brightest to gain entry, the floodgates have been opened for one and all. Once this happened, it became impossible to enforce a higher, more realistic, fee structure. Misplaced calls for egalitarianism—often only the shell of it, for our university graduates are hardly employable—put an end to it. The result has been that after paying salaries, there is hardly any money left for research, unless it comes from elsewhere.
The plans to raise fee could still come unstuck as the Central Advisory Board of Education may reject it. If only for the sake of quality, it should not.
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