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Indian universities’ research infirmity

Premchand Palety is the chief executive of the Delhi-based multidisciplinary research company C fore

All universities have the potential to catalyse massive industrial and socio-economic change in their local environments. A case in point is Stanford University. When the university was established in 1885 in Northern California’s Bay area, it was known primarily for its orchids with hardly any industry around it. But by nurturing and developing its unique research-based entrepreneurial culture, Stanford University has created a multi-billion dollar globally famous hi-tech industry in its neighbouring Silicon Valley and millions of technology jobs worldwide.

It all began in 1939 with faculty member Frederick Terman encouraging two of his students — William Hewlett and David Packard — to incubate a new technology business within the Stanford campus by applying the university’s path-breaking ICT (information communication technology) research. Hewlett-Packard Inc was thus born with an investment of US $538 (Rs.33,893) in 1939. Since then, HP has blossomed into a transnational IT hardware, software and peripherals manufacturing behemoth with offices in more than 170 countries, annual revenue of $111.48 billion (Rs.700,824 crore) and a global headcount of 324,000 employees. After HP, more than 3,000 companies including Sun Microsystems, Google, Cisco Systems, eBay, Yahoo, Logitech and Dolby Labs were incubated as students’ projects in Stanford University. The relatively unsung Terman is to a great extent responsible for the ICT revolution that began in the mid-20th century and has radically transformed industry, communications and lifestyles of humankind.

Though the first western universities sprang up in Paris and Bologna in the 12th century, Germany is the birthplace of the modern research university where teaching is supplemented with research and the creation of new knowledge. Defined by meritocracy and autonomy, these universities created and disseminated new information and knowledge. However in Germany, their growth and development was interrupted by the 30-years’ war in Europe culminating in the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), and in the 20th century by the two World Wars.

Therefore American students and faculty who had either studied or taught in European, especially German universities, played a major role in developing and nurturing similar institutions in the then relatively isolationist USA. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1860), Cornell University (1868), Johns Hopkins (1876) and the University of Chicago (1890) were established in quick succession modelled on German research universities. After the American Civil War (1861-1865) when the US emerged as a major industrial power and enjoyed peace and a stable political environment, they blossomed and significantly influenced the socio-economic development of the country. Today, the American research university model has evolved into the gold standard of higher education and is being emulated by many countries. In India, for several reasons only a few universities have been successful in establishing themselves as research institutions, and therefore have had little success in catalysing industrial and socio-economic development.

For the past 16 years, I have been actively involved in several initiatives which have evaluated institutes of higher education in India. As such, I have visited a large number of institutes and monitored their growth and development over the years.

The greatest failure of India’s higher education system is a chronic inability to create and/or apply new knowledge. Most of India’s 693 universities are teaching institutions with hardly any research culture. Between 2010 and 2014, only six Indian universities published more than 5,000 papers in reputed refereed or peer reviewed journals. During this period, Stanford (34,334) published more than three times the number of papers published by the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore (10,081). I am fully convinced that Indian industry is underdeveloped and laggard because the Indian academy has not been able to stimulate the creation of new knowledge and its applicability as per the Stanford model.

Universities can play a transformational role in societies if they constantly create new knowledge. That’s why in the EducationWorld-C fore India University Rankings 2015, high weightage has been given to research and innovation. Regrettably, most Indian universities haven’t been able to develop the environment or processes which would stimulate faculty to engage in research which inevitably improves teaching and students’ learning outcomes as well.

Of India’s 693 universities, only 150 have published papers in refereed journals in the period 2010-2014. A 2010 study conducted by Thomson Reuters, a major multinational mass media and information firm, indicates that the Indian academy contributes a mere 3.5 percent of global research output. Is our inability to stimulate path-breaking research due to faulty systems and processes, or is it because the K-12 education system inhibits curiosity and creativity of school-going students? This is an issue which requires urgent research and resolution.

(Premchand Palety is the chief executive of the Delhi-based multidisciplinary research company C fore)

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