The state of our higher education seems to have caught the imagination of our Western educated intelligentsia. It is common these days to come across articles pointing out the inefficiencies and defects in our educational system. Especially during university-ranking season, otherwise indifferent and intellectually sedate men and women show a great concern about universities. It is somewhat heartening to know that at least once a year we give some thoughts to our universities and institutions of higher learning.
Someone who grew up in a village, I was lucky enough to be able to find a good teacher in my village primary school. With some effort and good luck, I was able to make it to a metropolitan university, albeit a remarkably incompetent one. From there, I was able to move to IIT Bombay for my post-graduation which I completed, and for my Ph.D. program which I left after three years, for NCBS Bangalore for another trial at obtaining a research degree. To sum up, I have been to some of the worst and some of the most reputed campuses in the country.
It can not be too strongly emphasized that in any country academic excellence largely depends on the quality of academic culture and the value put on it by society as a whole. In West, unlike in India, there are many examples of remarkable work done by people with scant resources, little formal education and without any institutional support. In India, except for one Ramanujan, one searches in vain for equivalents of Thomas Edison and Madame Curie. Mainly because it is not easy to import a tradition of research when you lack one in your traditional order which might be extremely rich in other forms of human endeavors such as music, art, and painting. Perhaps it is too much to ask for such a culture to develop overnight, but one can surely worry about happenings in our universities.
It is often said that as far as academic culture is concerned, our universities are less efficient and more illiberal than the university ought to be; and it is largely true. But it would be insincere to put all the blame on the university only. It is often ignored that the social pool from which our universities draw their human resources is much more illiberal and equally inefficient; and it is naïve to expect, given the size of our universities, that the university can stay immune to it. In India, the university, even the worst one, is much more liberal and open than its surrounding.
One can easily notice that in one important aspect the social environment of our universities across the country is largely same. Our universities are places where new forms of social relations among genders and generations are formed and experimented upon; and the old ones are given new definitions and meanings. For many — especially women — university is the only place where they can experience a kind of social existence and experience a life which at times can be very distracting to their basic academic commitments. For most women in India, and perhaps in many other countries as well, universities are few places available to them to do either research and recreation, and for most among them university is the only place. One must not discount the role universities play in social conditioning of the society like ours.
Various things are said repeatedly about research culture in India, especially by those who rarely contribute to the research culture at home. I often feel confused about their arguments. It is truism that conditions in India for research are not as favorable as they are in the West but it won’t do us any good if we keep ignoring the fact — to give one example of it — that research done in Calcutta university these days is nowhere near to what was done during the time of C.V. Raman. I’ve heard sincere academics pointing out that more money is being spend and more people are involved on universities, yet the quality of work done on Indian universities keeps on declining.
I agree with Prof. Andre Beteille when he says that the problem with Indian universities is not of resources but of morale. It is disheartening to see young and bright students mocking, almost trivializing, theirs academic commitments, and showing little or no taste for an academic citizenship. How a native university suppose to flourish when its member hardly care of basic academic commitments? Although those who stays long enough on a Western university seem to go through a process of extreme change in their outlook towards academics and “research”. Personally, I find it almost impossible to figure out, when an Indian speaks about his passions for science and research, when he is being sincere and when he is bluffing for their interests and passions change rapidly according to the available opportunities (usually abroad).
The Indian university is most likely to expand. It will have more number of “research scholars” and faculty on campus who are neither intellectually self-reliance nor have any sense of academic citizenship. If anything, they will be pretty much interested in building empire for themselves than nurturing scholars or producing science. They will be successful in short run, for a democratic minded government can always be milked for more funds.