Wednesday, October 10, 2012

An Indian Academic Heads Back Home

On Sunday I drove past the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune. This new institute is part of the Government's initiative to expand and improve the state of science and technical higher education and research in the country. Apart from 5 new IISER's, over the past few years 8 new IIT's (Indian Institute of Technology), 7 new IIM's (Indian Institute of Management) and 12 new central Universities have been seeded.  It is hoped that a sizable number of Indian academics currently working abroad will be convinced to come and teach and work at these institutes.

Coincidentally Inside Higher Ed carried a story of Somak Raychaudhury an astrophysicist working in the U.K. who has been recruited by Presidency University Kolkata as part of their effort to upgrade their science infrastructure.

Presidency plans to hire about 180 new faculty members, many of them from abroad, to boost the quality of its teachers. Raychaudhury is among the first group of faculty members to be hired. (Existing faculty members have the option of applying for the openings or seeking a transfer to other state-run universities.)

Raychaudhury’s brief is to modernize the physics curriculum and introduce new branches of physics to students. "Presidency needs to ensure that students are taught by those who are at the cutting edge of research, and that students are involved in and inspired to do research,” he said in an e-mail. “The teaching material has to be constantly updated. Teaching has to be hands-on.”

His worry which is shared by many others is that the stifling bureaucracy, lower salaries and rigid visa regulations might dissuade enterprising new scientists from joining this planned Indian higher education expansion.

All these efforts though focus on a handful of elite institutions. The vast majority of Indian students get their science and technical degrees from state run universities and colleges. Urgently needed is a parallel initiative to raise the standards of these "lesser" institutes from poor/mediocre to decent. In this context the comment thread of Philip. Altback's blog post on the shortage of teaching staff in Indian Universities is revealing.

M. Zahira writes:

Like in most countries around the world in India too there has been a huge restructuring of the higher education sector. But teachers who actually 'teach' and students who may benefit by it have had no say in the matter. The teachers attended a two day seminar 5 months prior to everything being decided and we dont know how many of oyur suggestions were considered. We have no clue as to why certain 'reforms' have been implemented. The infrastructure facilities are still zero,the evaluation system is still orthodox and the teachers (who are fewer than than the required number) untrained.Teacher training courses are a year long and unscientific with very poor quality teaching. It is a vicious circle with untrained teachers producing more frustrated teachers..

And recently Krishna Kumar, Professor of Education at Delhi University and a former Director of NCERT painted a sorry picture of the state of Indian Universities in an article in the Hindu.

These four critical differences are, of course, symptomatic of deeper problems entrenched in structures that govern higher education in India. Those who perceive all problems in financial terms miss the barren landscape of our campuses. Inadequacy of funds is, of course, worrisome, but it cannot explain the extent to which malice, jealousy and cussedness define the fabric of academic life in our country. There is a vast chasm that separates the Indian academia from society. Let alone the masses, even the urban middle class cares little for what goes on inside classrooms and laboratories.

Perhaps the mindset in many elite institutes is different and faculty and students work in a more congenial atmosphere. Even so,  these are the challenges many returning scientists will face in varying degrees in India. But if you want to know about a more optimistic faculty starting a new life on an Indian campus of one elite institute, do read Academic Garden.

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