Is the higher education system in India on par with the West? Can it ever be?
This is a critically important question that will determine the destiny of India.
For that matter the destiny of any nation depends on how well educated her population is, whether she allows citizens the necessary freedoms to examine problems/propose good solutions without fear, and the economic/cultural/scientific opportunities that her socioeconomic system makes available to its populace. The best example of a social science experiment-at-scale that demonstrates this phenomenon is North vs. South Korea. North Korea is dirt-poor, while the South is a developed country with probably one of the best education systems with increasing investment in research. The North doesn’t invest in research or education (except for training needed to maintain the nuclear weapons technology from China), while South Korea is a major player in the scientific/technological domain.
This complex question has no easy answer. Having said that there are some conclusions that can be drawn, even based on anecdotal evidence.
* Teaching: I would say that Indian universities at the Bachelor’s level are not bad when it comes to teaching. Yes, there are many mediocre universities. However, there are many good teaching universities and colleges. Take CET (College of Engineering, Trivandrum where I got my B-Tech degree) as an example. CET is a fantastic college, and for the amount of money our parents spent we got a great education. The same can probably be said for the top 50 universities as far as teaching is concerned.
* Creative and critical thinking: On this count, the universities can do a lot better. The professors need to encourage more independent and creative projects. There is no shortage of problems, and the amount of scholarly material available on the internet is unbelievable. There is absolutely no excuse for not being able to do better on this score. Part of being creative is that one makes the best of the resources available.
* Research: Unfortunately, when it comes to research Indian universities don’t fare very well (There is overwhelming evidence to support this claim from different points of view. While university rankings can be controversial, they do provide a measure of how different nations perform on research. See, e.g., Shanghai rankings: http://www.shanghairanking.com/ARWU2012.html).
How can this situation be fixed? There are the obvious answers of putting more money into research etc. that actually don’t work out as planned. However, here are some ideas: 0) Hire the mos talented researchers as faculty members irrespective of their nationality, 1) Encourage professors to travel to lots of conferences, 2) Allow Indian professors visitations and extended academic stay in renowned foreign universities, and encourage visitations by professors from other countries at Indian universities (Interaction is the life blood of the scientific process), 3) encourage competition through research grants, 4) allow private individuals to add sums of money, big and small, to the endowment of the best Indian universities, and finally 5) create steeples of excellence. Pick a topic, say, genomics or computational biology or quantum computation. Then create a center of excellence that is internationally recognized. It takes time, money and effort, but it is worth it.
While the government of India and other institutions are putting resources into some of the above mentioned ideas, it is not sufficient. It is like the knee voltage for a diode. If the voltage is below a certain threshold, the device will not fire. Similarly, if the investment is not sufficient, nothing will come out of it.
Every Rupee properly invested in research, will likely produce more than 100X return on investment. For example, the internet was invented on money provided by the US government (taxpayer money) and the total investment probably didn’t exceed $1 Billion. At the time nobody could figure out an economic use for the internet (it was developed to keep the military functional in the event of a nuclear strike). Today, US companies dominate the internet economy and the US benefits greatly to the tune of 100s of Billions of dollars or more.
While every socioeconomic system will face challenges from time to time, the system that identifies problems in advance, prepares/deploys solutions to them in a timely fashion (i.e., invests in scientific, economic and social sciences research), is nimble and more equitable than the rest, will most likely be left standing. The rest will not choose their own destiny. It will likely be chosen for them.