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Any Hope from our Universities?

 By Bikash Sarmah 

What should be the salient function of a university? Is it teaching, research, or merely to exist as a degree-manufacturing factory whose output is a so-called human resource with employability quotient almost zero? A look at the universities of the country that are said to function as ‘universities’ will tell one the story. These are mostly stagnant institutions where mere careerists, with no aptitude at all for quality research, make a beeline for jobs as high-end teachers and researchers but who have not even the faintest of ideas as to what teaching and research entail as compared with the traditions carried forward by the really world-class universities such as the familiar names like Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard and also names that the layman may not have heard of but that are equally world-class centres of both teaching and research like Princeton, Yale, Standford and Edinburgh, to name just a few.
Let us first come to teaching. This is going to be a generalization; let us not dwell on the highly exceptional few among the teaching community, who of course, fortunately, do exist. In general what we see in universities across the country is a teaching fraternity whose main concern is what kind of offer the latest pay commission has for it and whether it deserves more by virtue of it being so very highly ‘qualified’. The mistaken synonym for qualified is educated. This cannot at all be. When a student pursuing a Master’s programme comes out of it with a so-called brilliant result that is mostly an outcome of his spirited indulgence in cramming old-fashioned notes delivered by his teachers who do not bother to revisit or revise those notes and make them creatively interesting and more encompassing, and when he embarks on a PhD route for some so-called research under a guide who is himself confused about the domain of the research to be guided, what happens is qualification definitely, but not education in the real sense of the term. No wonder then that our universities are flooded with PhDs engaged in teaching and research in which, in reality, there is no teaching and research at all in the real sense. Yes, Prof X teaches Y something, but the hapless Y does not learn anything interesting and out of box; the latter is encumbered by the same stereotype – there is no progress of him as a human resource.
Next, let us come to the vast, diverse and bewildering PhD-making universe in our universities. Is a student really inspired to undertake PhD research due to his unquenchable research thirst? Or is it  all because in order the climb the teaching hierarchy he must earn a PhD by hook or by crook and get firmly rooted in his ‘teaching’ and ‘research’ career to ultimately get the rank of Professor, producing in the process a number of PhDs too? The latter is true in most of the cases. And when this is the state of affairs when it comes to research in educational institutions that shout from the housetop that they are functioning universities dedicated to quality research and crowded by ingenious intellectuals capable of giving a new direction to the world, the less said the better.
Just a small but very important fact of life suffices to unveil some true colours. Before a student gets registered for a PhD, a synopsis of his proposed work has to be submitted. The synopsis ends with a bibliography – a list of books and research papers he has consulted to prepare the synopsis, with the unsaid indication that an extra ‘quality’ addition to that already ‘quality’ list will be instrumental in giving shape to his doctoral dissertation. But how many of the books and papers in that esteemed list has our would-be researcher really consulted, or, rather, how many such publications and research assets are available even in the library of his own university or department? The present breed of PhD scholars would do well to throw some light on the reality candidly. (As a former half-done PhD student at Gauhati University about 17 years back, I wouldn’t comment personally; the less said the better!)
But this is not all. The question is that of the guide who has asked his PhD student to prepare the bibliography – a mere cosmetic list of books, periodicals, journals, papers etc that none bothers to even pick up and open, let alone go deep into them and comprehend. These guides are mostly into the business of producing PhDs so that they have a fair chance of getting promoted with the concomitant higher salary packages and of being invited for seminars, conferences etc where they present ‘research’ papers eminent for lack of originality. The obvious inference is that these guides cannot produce quality PhDs. And the ‘research’ show is there for all to see. There are of course exceptions, and they definitely deserve a huge round of applause for their intellectual grit and honesty of purpose despite the stagnancy around them.
One therefore should not be surprised to see even the IITs and IIMs not making it to the list of 100 top universities in the world. But that this should happen to a country of over a billion, making us a butt of ridicule in the global intellectual domain of research, does not shame us; we continue to behave as if we are already on the verge of exploding as a knowledge society! On the other hand, look at Taiwan. Its Tsing Hua University is among the 20 best universities in the world. And what is Taiwan’s population? About as that of Assam’s! At Tsing Hua, the chief thrust is on research, with teachers, who are stalwarts as researchers too, leading tutorials of small groups of students around a round table and personally responding to their queries while also enlarging their creative horizons for future research. As for comparison with the Cambridge ilk, silence is golden.
Any wonder then that India should produce just one Nobel laureate in the world of sciences on its own soil – CV Raman in physics (1930)? The other India-born physicist to win a Nobel, S Chandrasekhar (1983), was a naturalized US citizen whose research emanated from the University of Chicago, not any Indian university. As for Hargobind Khorana, the other India-born Nobel laureate in the sciences domain (medicine), his too was a research that had taken its solid and classic shape on foreign shores (US), not Indian soil. And what about the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen (economics)? Well, his too was a research on foreign soil (he was the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge), not on Meraa Bhaarat Mahaan.
The point being underscored is that so long as teaching-research stereotype in our universities is not done away with in order to facilitate creative teaching methodologies, research transparency and ingenuity, and university-industry interface so as to derive from the industry its best and give the industry the university’s best, the much-vaunted talk of world-class universities by the HRD Ministry will remain empty, subjecting us to further scorn in the international research sphere, especially by neighbouring China whose universities such as the one of Beijing have already excelled as role models for our own universities to become truly world-class. 
(Bikash Sarmah can be reached at bksarmah07@rediffmail.com)

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