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Friday, August 11, 2006

Rethinking higher education

My recent blog post on Israel reiterates the deep impact of strong universities on the task of winning at high-end knowledge functions in the global economy. Even in the lower-quality BPO jobs that India excels at, meaningful higher education matters critically in giving young people the ability to rapidly reshape their skills in response to the evolving needs of the global labour market.

One useful thing Arjun Singh has done is to help bring a greater focus upon the long-standing crisis in Indian higher education. There has been a bunch of interesting readings on the subject:

A short while ago, I had written about entry barriers in Indian higher education. China has made enormous progress when compared with India, particularly in freeing up foreign and private entry. A recent article in The Economist looks at their problems: China: Chaos in the classrooms; An education policy torn between the market and the state.

A simple litmus test of the situation with universities in India is: How often do you see work done in an Indian university get noticed and have impact globally? I can only think of a handful of situations. One that leaps to mind is the work done at IIT Kanpur in number theory a few years ago. Another recent episode is a paper written by a group of people at the Central Salt & Marine Chemicals Research Institute, Bhavnagar, Gujarat and the Hindustan Lever Research Centre, Bangalore about how to make salt flow smoothly, which got mentioned as one of the great ideas of 2006 by the New York Times Magazine By and large, such episodes appear to be woefully rare.


  1. I never understood why UGC does not allow private universities. Is it some left over socialist policy of the British or was it one of the late 60s Indira monster that we are unable shed? It doesn't seem to be on any occasional education reform mandates.

  2. I am not sure for how long can we pride on our fantastic scientific community and its expertise. It just a few days back our Scientific Adviser himself asked for serious consideration and encouragement for science streams.

    The post independence decades 70s-80s were fantastic because of the developments that we were able to achieve in the fields of atomic physics and space sciences. It is truly wonderful to look back at the achievements we had then.

    With major part of our nation being BPO-affected, we are on our way to become country of clerks and launderers for the world. Pure sciences are truly in the most pitiful state and of course you have a major tumor in the form of UGC, whose medieval age policy has been totally outgrown by new technologies. Until I see something more in the rainbow than IITs/RECs/and high-end IT, there is nothing much to stop us from becoming nation of clerks

  3. My view is that the IITs and IISc are nice in terms of education but never really made the grade in terms of research. I think the really exciting story has only now got going, and this is the establishment of R&D facilities by top global IT companies in India. For the first time, we now have top quality facilities, top quality salaries, good networking into the world, and high pressure workplaces where the individual does not have the luxury of slacking off. I think this is setting where, for the first time, a serious volume of science will actually get done in India.

  4. Ooops, I meant "top global companies", not "global IT companies".

  5. While global companies research is a good thing, I hope it spills over into university research also. (IITs are student farms for western universities research labs by and large, with active encouragement from IITs faculty.) Quantitatively and qualitatively university based research is fundamentally different especially if they were to accrue to Indians and Indian companies. For that funding has to come from GOI to a large extent – this is just not happening.

  6. I agree that good universities are wonderful, and the Israel story highlights how much of an impact one good university can have. But the present situation is quite bleak in terms of the HR process in universities: mechanisms of recruitment, performance evaluation, salaries, flexibility on time management, flexibility about teaching obligations, etc.: the picture is grim. In short, it's next to impossible to get a good researcher today to join one of the sarkari places.

    So it is increasingly becoming the case that the top quality researchers are being recruited into the labs being setup by the Fortune 500 companies. This has now become the focus of top quality knowledge work getting done in India. It isn't the best of all imaginable worlds, but it's what we have got.

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