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Indian Universities: The Time is Now

Ron Vale, UCSF


Preface
Dr. Lakhotia and I chose to write our October blogs on the Indian universities, unknowing of the other’s intent or content.  These blogs arose independently after stimulating conversations that we had at BHU.  A couple of blogs from two individuals is but a drop in a reservoir that needs to be filled.  This situation demands a sustained dialogue, brain storming, and a commitment of time (not just money) by many individuals to improve the future prospects of universities as well as colleges in India.

Indian Universities:  The Time is Now

India has dug itself into a deep hole with regard to its university level educational system in the life sciences.  The development of research institutes from the 1970s to the present enabled India to modernize its research efforts in biology, particularly molecular biology. However these new research institutes were built as isolated entities, physically and intellectually separated from universities from their inception. The reason is perhaps obvious; directors of new institutes wanted to be freed of the arcane bureaucracy and antiquated research enterprise of the universities.  A fresh start is what is needed for progress.  However, universities not only failed to benefit intellectually from the new research institutes, but the “new” sucked up resources from the “old”.  The much greater financial government support of research institutes is one obvious disparity.  However, as big, if not a bigger problem in my opinion, has been the “brain drain” from the universities, as incoming, accomplished scientists flocked to establish careers within the institutes.  As a result of >25 years of neglect, the universities, once proud centers of learning in post-independence India, now seem like unattended gardens where only the hardiest flowers survive.

But this strategy of divorcing research from education has been short-sighted.  India has some truly outstanding high schools; from visiting a few high schools, my impression is that the science and math education is on par if not better than American high schools. At the top rung of the educational ladder, the best research institutes in India are doing very well and provide good training environments for Masters and Ph.D. students.  But the middle has suffered.  For those pursuing science rather than an engineering degree, are these bright first-year Indian undergraduates receiving a world-class science education? Are they being exposed to the best minds in Indian biology? At this pivotal age, are they being turned on to science by enthusiastic teachers and researchers? Unfortunately, positive answers to these questions are the exception rather than the rule.  By contrast, undergraduate students (including first-years) at Stanford, MIT, Princeton, UCB, and numerous other universities are lectured by their best scientists.  These campuses thrive by combining missions of education and research, not by separating them.

One response of the Indian government to this dilemma was to create the IISERs and NICERs, an inspired decision to combine education/research for undergraduates.  But they are new, building up slowly and enrolling relatively small numbers of students.  But what about the Universities?  Can something be done with these >300 establishments, which are in various states of decline?  The problem seems overwhelming.  There are not enough life preservers for all of them, at least in the near term.  And while money will help (infrastructure improvement, faculty salaries, etc); unfortunately, it is not the entire answer.  The research and teaching culture of the universities also needs to be reinvigorated, after what has been a long period of malaise.  Without taken culture into account and advancing creative efforts to improve it, large sums of money could pour in from Delhi but not take hold, vanishing like rain onto a parched ground

It is easy to state the problem, but much harder to offer a solution. The central government is now established “top down” funding programs such as establishing new Centers of Excellence in specific technologies or research topics in the universities.  This has certainly been helpful. However, bottom up approaches are needed to complement top-down approaches and reward local efforts.  Here, I offer two relatively lost-cost, grass roots ideas that, while being limited in scope, might have some impact on the culture of a few proactive Universities.  If a few Universities benefit and improve, others are likely to follow.

Fostering “Groups of Excellence”

Excellence needs to be recognized and encouraged at the universities.  With promotions dictated by a clock (years of service) rather than performance, there are few incentives to aspire beyond common expectations.  Yet, some university faculty members are doing good research (especially given the limited resources), deliver inspiring lectures, act as good mentors to students, and remain committed to the future of their university.  

These committed and outstanding faculty constitute the university’s greatest asset and also represent their greatest hope for improvement.  They need to be given better resources and recognition, so that they can aspire to work beyond the status quo.  I would like to see a new grants program for “Groups of Excellence”, to be awarded to a collection of 3-5 faculty who have performed well both as scientists and teachers. Importantly, a “Group of Excellence” grant would not only require evidence of past performance but be based upon a forward looking vision of a grant proposal to 1) develop and teach innovative curriculum, 2) provide a mentoring program for junior faculty, 3) develop or improve a research facility (so that many people at the university benefit), and 4) expand research efforts in their own laboratories.  Some of these ideas are based other successful grant programs.  The HHMI Professors program has provided excellent teachers/researchers with funds for developing innovative curriculum at their universities. Human Frontiers Science Program encourages new collaborations between scientists (in their case between countries, but in the “Group of Excellence” model, collaboration between educator/scientists within or between departments would be fostered).  A key point of this grant model is that funds would not be awarded to Department Chair or Dean of Faculty of Science, where politics are likely to govern the allocation and diminish the outcome as a result.  Instead, this grant scheme would reward the best university faculty on a competitive basis and also those who are willing to self-organize and make a forward-looking plan that will not only benefit their laboratory but their institution as a whole. 

Revamping the Recruitment Process

While the above scheme will promote outstanding current faculty, universities also must recruit excellent junior faculty if they are to survive and flourish in the future.  However, despite the growing enrollment of students, the number of junior faculty at Universities is low and many open positions remain unfilled. This trend is particularly worrisome, given that these recruitment difficulties are occurring concurrently with a rapidly growing interest of postdocs being trained abroad (and within India itself) in pursuing academic careers in India.  Furthermore, while there are more job positions becoming available in the institutes and IISERs, the numbers are not sufficient to match the number of credible Indian scientists seeking academic employment.  If Universities desperately need new blood and there is a big pool of potential applicants, what is the problem?  The reasons are several fold-  universities have many arcane procedures for hiring (discouraging most applicants), have extremely limited start-up funds, and lack protected time for research in the first two years (unlike US Universities which ramp up teaching in the first few years).

Universities must revamp many of their restrictive guidelines and develop more progressive hiring procedures in order to be competitive.  The exact strategy of revamping recruitment and hiring needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis, as each university is saddled with its own guidelines and limitations.  However, some general ideas include extending the time window for application deadlines, instituting a “recruiting season” and potentially coordinating visits of postdoc applicants with several universities, networking to advertise jobs (IndiaBioscience.Org, Current Science, etc), potentially recruiting small clusters (2-3) of collaborating junior faculty (making a university potentially attractive over research institutes which might only be able to hire one person), and developing more inviting and enticing recruiting days for interviewing job candidates.  It is essential that more university faculty be involved in recruitment.  This is especially true for junior faculty who are largely excluded from this activity, despite the fact they are the most effective ambassadors for enticing new faculty to come (as is well established in US universities).  Revamping recruitment will require the Vice-Chancellors and Dept. Chairs of the universities to reconsider their administrative procedures (a painful process).  Senior faculty must be open to change in their departmental culture and in their support of junior faculty (even if that was not part of their upbringing in the Indian academic system).  While not easy to change, the alternate is the status quo, which is pointing towards university life science departments not being able to renew themselves or propagating in a substandard manner.  University departments that become more progressive in recruitment will become beacons for young scientists, who have excellent sensors for good scientific environments and good colleagues.

In addition to improving the recruitment process, India must support excellent young scientists who are willing to take a chance on the university system.  Currently, the universities are very democratic, as they bestow similar resources on all faculty within their system.  However, US and European universities flourish by providing incentives based upon performance.  I would propose that India (or Wellcome-DBT) provide a new grant for outstanding junior faculty to start credible research efforts in the university system.  Ideally, this could be awarded on a competitive basis to postdocs before they apply to and take a job at a university, thus making them attractive from the onset and freeing them from any departmental politics.  The Wellcome-DBT Alliance provides a series of competitive career grants to individuals, the goal in part being to make India sufficiently attractive to postdocs who also will get good job offers in the US/Europe.  However, virtually all of these excellent grants go to individuals who become faculty within research institutes or IISERs.  A similar type of grant program could be developed to make universities sufficiently attractive for starting careers, such that a capable Indian scientist might be tempted to join a university over a research institute within India.  Even a grant program with a small number of slots (e.g. 5-10) could have an enormous national impact for a relatively small cost.

Conclusions

Universities/India must act now to reverse a long trend towards obsolescence, as the rest of the world races forward with its educational systems.  The IISERs are a bright addition and already successful, but are insufficient in scope and represent a typical trend of building anew instead of solving problems lingering from the past. More money from Delhi to select universities will help infrastructure, but does not represent the entire answer.  The most immediate need is people and ways of recognizing/rewarding excellence.  The “star” university faculty, who are the role models for students and junior faculty, need to be recognized, supported, and encouraged to do more in face of considerable inertia and political obstacles.  Universities also need to recruit better junior faculty, as they will infuse new energy into the system and become the university’s future and leadership.  Is change unrealistic?  I would argue not, because this is a small numbers game-  a few people can make an enormous difference!  A couple of good senior mentors together with 3-4 junior faculty can completely change the character and culture of a department.   Success stories in a few university/college departments will provide optimism.  It also will send a message that India cares about its faculty who are dedicated to the mission of university-level education and willing to take a risk in their careers to make it succeed.
 

Thanks Dr Ron Vale. I liked the idea of funding groups of

Thanks Dr Ron Vale. I liked the idea of funding groups of excellence. It is very much possible if the funding agencies take a note of it and organise workshops in various states encouraging faculty to apply for collaborative projects. On a different note, university departments lack infrastructure and these kind of funds to the groups can serve the purpose. Regarding the recruitment process, I dont think there is any future map laid by the ministry of education in this regard as all I could see many vacant posts. Your points are very much valid and eye openers to make the university education still better.

Regards

Shyam

Thanks for the excellant article. I would be really happy if

Thanks for the excellant article. I would be really happy if atleast 5-10 vice chancellors / 15-20 chairs from the Universities read this article and think that the change is not unrealistic and they can do it as the time has already started. I second your thought in sugesting grants for Groups of Excellence. I am not against the Indian university system that I have brought up with my Master degrees in India. But, I strongly oppose the obsolescence of knowledge,  taken for granted since decades in the higher education system (particularly Indian education ministry). This article is a ray of hope in my opinion. I start dreaming right away that this process will start in near future.

Thanks for your reply Ravi. Let us be optimistic and invest

Thanks for your reply Ravi. Let us be optimistic and invest time and energy to improve the situation.

Well written ! 

Well written ! 

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