Higher Education a developing saga

Dr Vaidya Subramanian, Dean Planning and Development SASTRA University , Thanjavur speaks on the higher education sector's development and needs. 

Q1: Almost every western economy is under brink of collapse, so what is your take on higher education foreign investment in India?

Indian higher education has always been a market where demand outstrips supply. That is why even spurious institutions make merry. However, the approach of foreign institutions will be cautious. The financial crisis has forced the US Department of Education to slash funds at all levels — K to 12, community colleges and universities. The situation will worsen in the next few years as such defunding will cut off federal stimulus funds that had prevented layoffs and classroom cuts. It is in this context that the Foreign Universities Bill has to be seen. The foreign universities are eyeing the voluminous under-graduate degree market as they will not take the risk of losing the students who visit the US for post-graduate education. They will only be interested in offering predominantly UG courses and may not engage in cutting edge research or quality PG programmes which they shall do only in their home ground. Therefore, the assumption that the entry of foreign universities in India will stop Indian students from going abroad is totally baseless. Many students will go abroad for post-graduate education as it is a passport for a professional career outside India. The current academic-financial crisis is forcing them to look at Indian higher education as a business opportunity to pull them out from the crisis at home. Under these hidden realities, the government's move to allow foreign universities in India in the name of quality is unfortunate for a country that exported quality education through Takshila and Nalanda. In the interest of the country, the government should think of a calibrated entry of foreign universities beginning with only doctoral and PG programmes for the first 10-years with their own existing faculty. The resulting output will address the faculty shortage in the country.

Q2: There is a constant complaint over funding constraints of in Research and Development in advanced science studies. Being a research based university, what is the future course of SASTRA?

SASTRA, ever since it became a University, shifted gears from being a teaching institution and accelerating to become a comprehensive research University. There are over 40 ongoing research projects funded by various agencies like DST,DRDO, DRDL, AYUSH, ICMY, DBT besides corporate. The University’s research corpus also provides seed money for research projects and encourages faculty to publish in reputed journals that are indexed in SCI or SCOPUS and having high impact factors. It attracts young minds to work as full-time Ph.D. scholars and currently over 50 full-time doctoral students are pursuing Ph.D. and are provided a monthly stipend of Rs. 12,000 to 16,000. The University also encourages students to undergo research internships in Harvard, MIT, Georgia Tech, Cambridge, etc. and provide round trip airfare and monthly stipend of USD 200 for such students. SASTRA also holds the record for sending the maximum number of students under the Indian Academy of Sciences Fellowship programme for the last 5 sessions.

Q3: According to a recent study, ICT investment is set to increase in future. What will be the role of universities in India in creating local talent pool without foreign dependence?

Nation-wide collaborative projects like the National Programme on Technology Enabled Learning (NPTEL) & National Mission on Education Using ICT (NMEICT) and other private initiatives have added a new dimension in the use of ICT in education. A country that boasts of its intellectual assets can deliver more such solutions and need not depend of foreign providers. It only needs a proper direction and sufficient allocation of funds to provide an ICT platform that can  provide a non-linear growth.

Q4: It has become a yearly event to witness students of IIT, NIT achieving higher salary packages compared to other higher education students. What is your take on these premiere education institutions poaching high value employment opportunities?

I do not agree with this generalisation. Top recruiters like Microsoft, Amazon, Google, e-Bay and core companies like Renault, Ford, Hyundai, Alsthom, Siemens, etc. visit non-IITs/NITs. Assuming your generalisation is true, how is that we have non-IIT/NIT graduates in such companies. Actually, the companies have to change their mindset and think out of the IIT/NIT orbit. There are a handful of private universities which can compete with IITs/NITs and recruiters have to realise this in a bigger scale.

Q5: Compared to China, Indian technical institutions are producing very few research scholars every year. What is your suggestion to increase the numbers?

China's spending on research and development has steadily increased to 1.5% of its GDP and is higher than that of most other developing countries. Since 2000, the number of papers by scholars based in China published in Science Citation Index (SCI)-listed journals has quadrupled. China has outperformed every other nation, with a 64-fold increase in peer-reviewed scientific papers since 1981, with the focus on chemistry and materials science. The Chinese government has urged scientists to publish in reputable English-language journals, offering promotions and other rewards as incentive. China's enormous investment, at a rate above the rate of inflation, at all levels of the system — schools to postgraduate research, has been the spine of such a resurgent research boom.

The Indian academic research story needs to be rewritten. There are inherent systemic problems that plague the research environment. Less than 1% of the total students enrolled in higher education are pursuing Ph.D. and this is not in pace with the overall growth of students in higher education. The overall quality of doctoral studies in many institutes is questionable. With large faculty vacancies and a poorly qualified faculty, the quality of research in higher education institutes, including the IITs, which have a 20% vacancy, is diluted.

A survey conducted by the UGC shows that a quarter of the faculty in Indian higher education institutions spends less than five hours per week on research. The quantum of extramural support given by Indian agencies to higher education institutes is insignificant compared to the funding received by other leading institutes abroad. The research budget of Harvard University for the year 2008 was Rs.250 billion. During this period, the total extramural grant disbursed for R&D projects to Indian academia was Rs.12 billion and by the UGC alone was Rs.1.3 billion. Look at the contrast! There is need for an enabling environment for the corporate sector to work with universities on research/commercialisation.

In line with corporate tax holidays like SEZs, where the government is prepared to lose billions to attract investment, it should be prepared to provide tax holidays for a minimum period of 10 years to eligible research faculty in all universities & colleges.  Though the opportunity revenue loss will be in millions, the resultant knowledge gain and it's consequential benefits will be enormous. This shall attract good researchers to the university ecosystem and result in quality teaching as it’s a natural by-product of research. Also, funding for research must be performance based on not based on legacy status of Universities. The Government must not discriminate between private and public universities while disbursing research grants. Corporates must also come out from the IIT hangover and provide research funding to other competent private universities.

Q6: What is your perspective on the negative growth of IT sector in the west and its impact on the Indian technology education sector?

Though there is an impact, the revised lowered estimate in the Global IT spend still offers opportunities for doing business in different geographies like Latin America, far-East, etc. Also, new business verticals, enterprise solutions, consulting and maintenance still offer new vistas for business growth. After 9/11, there was a hue and cry that IT education is doomed and many did enrol in IT courses. The effect of this was telling when the IT business started booming there was a huge gap between demand and supply as a result of which all types of engineers were recruited. I hope the same does not happen now due to the US and Eurozone crisis and Indian IT companies are managing them diligently.

Q7: Will there be any shift in enrollment of students when foreign education institutions setup shops in India, and What is your take on the issue?

Despite the availability of quality subsidised engineering and management education in India (on average, an engineering or management student in a reputed institution pays $120 a month as fees compared to $1,500-5,000 in an equivalent institution the U.S., Canada, Australia, Singapore and Britain), about five lakh students go abroad every year.

One of the main reasons is the high quality of the post-graduate and doctoral degree programmes offered in institutions abroad, delivered through innovative methodologies and abundant flexibility. In addition, the students crave for foreign exposure which can be a springboard for a global career. Even if foreign universities open up campuses in India, a vast majority of students will still prefer to leave India, and the impact of this on foreign reserves will continue to be felt.

Shreenesh Raman

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