Strengthening the R&D Ecosystem

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Higher education is at the core of the R&D ecosystem in a country. In India, research in universities / institutions has not been supported as strongly as in other countries, and that is one of the reasons why its universities do not compete well globally. I am giving here an article I wrote with Prof. Jitendra Malik, Arthur J Chick Professor at UC Berkeley for Time of India some years back. The article is even more relevant today, as there is a much stronger desire and push to have some of our universities reach the global rankings.

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Ideate and Innovate: The Weak R&D System in India must be fixed if we are to compete in the global economy (with Jitendra Malik), Times of India

R&D in India was earlier not really tied to the economy as the industry did not really need R&D. Now with integration of Indian economy with the global economy, there is dependence of some segments of economy on R&D. And in future, the value of R&D to India will only increase, as countries that have the ability to innovate through R&D will be better placed on tapping new opportunities and compete in the global market place.

Due to this changed scenario, there is a need to strengthen our R&D ecosystem. R&D is globally done in three types of organizations – Universities, Government owned labs, and labs of companies.  The last is outside the purview of public policy (except perhaps fiscal incentives), but the first two are influenced a great deal by the Government policies and investment. The world experience is that out of the two, except for some focused defense, space etc. related R&D, the efficiency and effectiveness of the University is higher. Most research output comes from Universities, and most of the Nobel Prize winners work in academia. Furthermore, besides the direct R&D output, universities also produce PhDs and Masters which forms the main resource for the corporate as well as government research centers (and, of course, for the Universities themselves.) It is clear that universities form the nucleus of the R&D ecosystem, and unless this nucleus does well, it is not possible to build a strong R&D ecosystem in a nation.

In the US, which has the most vibrant R&D ecosystem, importance of Universities was clearly articulated in the seminal and highly influential report in late 1940s by Vannevar Bush, which led to the creation of National Science Foundation in the US. Over the years there has been a dramatic increase in Federal funding to R&D in academia, and now of about $110 Billion Federal expenditure in R&D, academia gets the lion’s share of more than 30% while Government agencies get about 25% (private sector gets about 20%, and rest goes to other categories.)

In India, the critical importance of R&D in academia is not appreciated and the investment on R&D in universities is extremely inadequate – of the Central Government spend on R&D, only about 5% goes to higher education, while government bodies spend about 90% of the expenditure! This lack of research funding to higher education is a key factor in decline of the erstwhile good universities to teaching-only places, and the continued weakness of our R&D eco system. If India is to build a strong R&D eco-system, R&D in Universities must be heavily supported.

Large investments in R&D in universities must be supplemented by methods that will push the Universities to excel. And the best method for this is the competition. Consequently, the second area which needs reform is strengthening of competition at all levels in the R&D setup. It is known, that competition gets the best out of business organizations. It is not fully appreciated that it is also extremely important for Universities. In the US, competition has been built at all levels. There is competition to get good students – all the main universities vie for them and compete to get them. There is strong competition to attract the best faculty – universities go out of their way to get good faculty and vigorously compete, even with corporate research labs (incidentally, universities often win in this competition with private labs). And there is strong competition for research funding. For the NSF research grants both private and public universities compete, and the competition is really tough today – upward of 90% of the proposals are not funded. The situation with DARPA and NIH (the other major agencies for research funding) is not much different.

Contrast with the system in India. There is little competition for getting research funding – the Govt labs simply get their funds, and for research funding to academia, there is little competition for the few places that do decent research, like IITs, IIITs, IISc, etc, as other places are in poor shape for conducing R&D. There is some competition among IITs for PG students and faculty, but there is limited competition from outside. Now with the emergence of corporate research labs in India, an external competition is emerging for recruiting faculty in some sectors.

Competition among universities can be strengthened considerably by having independent and rigorous evaluation of Universities on a regular basis using proper frameworks that compares Indian Universities and their departments with each other, as well as with universities across the world. Rigorously done independent evaluation (with perhaps rewards like government grants tied to it) will generate a sense of competition between the universities, and if done in a proper manner, can also provide universities some directions for improvement. Establishing a center like the Center for Measuring University Performance in the US can be a major step in this direction.

It should be clear that supporting competitive spirit among universities will necessarily require them to have much more autonomy and control – an organization cannot compete if it does not have basic tools like deciding compensation, incentive structure, etc.  (Here the argument that since the government provides most of the funding and hence must exercise control does not hold – universities in US, Europe, Singapore, Australia etc are heavily funded by the government, yet they are very autonomous in deciding their salaries, their incentives, and processes.)

It is essential that we build a large and vibrant R&D eco-system in the country. This requires universities to be at the epicenter of the research eco system, which requires a large number of research universities that are autonomous and are well funded for R&D. It also requires an independent and rigorous evaluation framework be built for assessing university performance, which will push universities to compete and provide the much needed drive for improvement.

Jitendra Malik, Arthur J Chick Professor, University of California Berkeley and Pankaj Jalote, Director, IIIT-Delhi. Views are personal.

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Governance Model of HEIs in India

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Autonomy of Educational Institutions is essential for an higher educational institute (HEI) to achieve excellence. But, of course, autonomy is not sufficient. If autonomy of governance is to help move towards excellence, and not degenerate into hiding mediocrity behind autonomy, it is essential that governance structure for HEI should be solid with suitable checks and balances.

There are two broad governance models in India – one of them is a creation of the British, who wanted no check on the powers of their administrators. This model still continues, and effects are not very good, as records of so many universities show. A few years ago, Prof. G. Barua (Director of IIT Guwahati at that time) and myself had written an article in TOI on it – I am giving this article below – its thesis remains fully relevant.

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Learning How To Teach – Getting the governance model for our universities right is a must for boosting the education sector (appeared in Times of India Editorial Page), by Pankaj Jalote and Gautam Barua

 

There has been considerable discussion and debate on autonomy of educational Institutions. But very little attention has been paid about the Governance in Educational Institutes. There are two main governance models that are prevalent– one is what we will call “the IIT model” (IM) which prevails in all IITs, IIMs, and many other Institutes, and the other is “the University Model” (UM), which is employed in most Universities.

First it should be clarified that institutions under both these models are universities in that they can give degrees,  etc., and an University can adopt IM and an engineering Institute can follow UM.

In both the models, there is a chief executive, called Director in IM and Vice Chancellor in UM, who  is supported by Deans, Heads, Registrars, etc. There is a Board which is the principle executive body –the Board of Governors (BOG) in IM, and the  Executive Council (EC) in UM. There is an academic body which looks after academic governance –often called the Academic Council in UM and Academic Senate in IM.

A sound principle of governance is that in critical matters the recommending body and accepting body are separate. This separation is important to keep some form of check on the recommending body. In an educational Institute, for most administrative matters, the recommending body is often the executive, and the final accepting body is the Board/EC. And it is here the two models differ fundamentally – in IM the Board is chaired by an external person, while in UM, the EC is chaired by the Vice Chancellor him/herself.

With the EC and the Executive both headed by the VC, the VC has far more in his control than in the IIT system. This is perhaps a legacy of the British Raj, which works well if the VC is visionary, as was the case in early times when we had towering VCs like Dr. Radhakrishnan.  However, it can seriously damage a university if the VC is malleable or not competent.  In our country we can be sure that appointment of VCs will sometimes be political which can put people not competent for the job in the top position. In other words, if we take the university over a period of multiple decades, we can be almost sure that there will be some periods in which it would be headed by a not very competent VC who is a political appointee.

One crucial area where this can show up is in faculty selections. In both the models, recommendation for faculty selection is generally made by a selection committee, which has experts as members, and is  chaired by the Director/Vice Chancellor. However, the power to actually make appointments rests with the Board, which a Board often delegates to its Chairman for speedy acceptance. This weakness opens the VC to political pressure for faculty appointments, as it is the VC who effectively decides on appointments. In IM, as the recommendations have to be accepted by the Chairman, political pressure is harder to apply. And nothing hurts an academic institution more than appointment of poor quality faculty – even a few appointments can help mediocrity to set in, as a faculty member may be with the University for 30 years. The negative message it sends out will dissuade good candidates from applying, thereby creating a snowball effect, from which it can be very hard to recover.  This is one of the key reasons why good faculty candidates simply do not apply to universities that are perceived as supporting mediocrity (despite the fact that the salaries across Institutes are same in India.) And in a 10 year period, a VC can easily appoint a quarter of the faculty to fill vacancies created by retirement, and new posts. This system also creates problems in other areas such as awarding contracts, etc.

Interestingly, this aspect also encourages internal politics in UM, which can make it harder for well meaning VCs to implement desired changes. For example, a VC, as the chief executive, is usually the best person to defend a proposal before the EC, which is the final accepting body. But since he is the Chairman also, he often cannot do so strongly, and, in fact, has to often rely on the Registrar to defend the proposal. As the VC is himself not making the proposal, EC members, many of whom are internal faculty members, are able to lobby against the proposals more easily (and in the process indirectly criticize the VC himself on his face!)

It is not an accident that over the last fifty years, the institutions that have enhanced or preserved their reputation are mostly the ones that follow IM – IITs, IIMs, IISc, etc. Examples of Institutes that were once great but have declined in stature over the years are often universities, including many which were once highly reputed temples of learning.

In modern India, the governance of Universities should reflect the modern and tested systems of Governance. The IIT model  is more robust and can better handle occasional “bad appointments” at the top position. As India increases its Universities, to prevent them from becoming mediocre with time, it is important that they are created with this model, rather than the University model.

Insightful Suggestions by Chancellor and Chief Guest in IIIT-Delhi Convocation

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IIIT-Delhi held its 7th convocation on Sat, Aug 25. This was the last one for me as Director, and the first one we held in the 500 seater auditorium in our new Seminar Complex (a huge building with seminar rooms, class rooms, labs, etc, as well as one full floor of incubation center.) In my address to students, I talked about some lessons that are embedded in the IIIT-D’s decade long journey – the previous post gives a few of these.

IIIT-D’s Chancellor, Hon’ble LG of Delhi, and Chief Guest, Rajan Anandan of Google, gave excellent speeches. One point from each of their speeches really stuck a chord with me. I think they are useful for all – so will like to share them here.

Hit the pause button occasionally in life. Hon’ble Chancellor, in his speech (video of which is here) observed that in the world today everyone is running. All of us want to be in Fast Forward mode for life – achieve everything in a shorter time, cover more ground faster, …. He advised that we should also learn to “hit the pause button” occasionally – and use the pause to reflect, absorb, travel, etc. which can help us grow more and also help us do course correction that may be needed.

Such a wonderful advise. And how true – we are indeed all running to do/achieve more. Even with a noble/higher cause, people are driven to achieve or contribute more. But this speed will normally push the person to continue what he/she is doing – just do it faster and more efficiently. It does not allow for a rethink or reflection to change directions or do something else – and in the long life that most of us have, this lack of ability to change direction or purpose can be actually sub-optimal even for what one can contribute or achieve. And this relentless drive certainly makes the life less enjoyable, and the life journey less happier.

I often advise students to take a semester off (and in IIIT-Delhi we have regulations to do it easily) and explore life, or India or world, or go and work for a company…. Though there are some students who indeed do this, there is a strong desire and a clear pressure on students to finish their BTech in 4 years – parents also have this  expectation. Somehow, students are not able to see that starting the long life of working professional a few months earlier is of no consequence – though taking a semester off (i.e. pause) to explore can make the university life much richer experience.

As it turns out, next year I am also on Sabbatical. And I had decided not to work for any one organisation during this – but instead visit many places and engage with different groups. I hope to read, travel, connect with people, and write during this Sabbatical, without any “job requirement” for doing it. This will be my pause. This advise helped me put my plans for Sabbatical on a more solid principle.

People are remembered for their successes, not their failures. Mr Rajan Anandan gave an excellent speech (video is here) which connected excellently with the students – besides many examples from his life, he also pointed out how speeches given in convocation are forgotten. There is one point he mentioned which I found extremely insightful, and which helped me in clarifying my own thoughts and see things in a better perspective. I am mentioning it here – a small attempt to make sure that it is not forgotten easily.

He made an observation, which is also a lesson, which is so true, yet many of us do not think of it. He said that people are remembered for their successes, not their failures – it is us who remember our failures not others, who remember people by their successes. And he supported it by saying that there are many things he did in his life in which he failed – but no one remembers them – all remember him for the good things he has done or achieved.

This is so true in academics. Students are remembered not by the instructor of the courses in which they got a C or a D, but are remembered by instructors of those classes in which they got an A+ or did excellently, or by faculty with whom they did some exciting project. And it is these faculty members who give strong recommendation letters for the students, often without regards for grades students may have gotten in other courses. But many students, chasing a good CGPA, optimize by getting a decent grade in all courses, rather than excelling in some subjects (which will also make them much stronger in those subjects.)

Similarly, for contributions by researchers and faculty – most faculty are remembered and defined by the good books they may have written that are used widely, or great papers that are cited heavily, or technologies they may have developed that got used by companies, etc. Almost by definition, no one remembers the papers / books the researcher/ faculty member wrote that very few people read, and consequently no researcher or academic is defined by them.

Remembering our failures is done mostly by us. We sometimes let them become bigger that they really are, and feel bad over them or have regrets for a long time. If we realize that in the larger scheme of things, failures do not matter and few people give them much thought (except perhaps nagging relatives or negative colleagues who may be looking for opportunities to pull one down). We are defined by our successes – what we achieved and what we contributed. And others also notice these more (even the envious person gets envious due to successes.)

This perspective I personally found deeply insightful and helped me put some things in better perspective. During the IIIT-Delhi journey, there were setbacks every now and then. I often worried about these and worried endlessly on what I could do to revert them or avoid them…. For example, if a good faculty member left, I will feel really bad and it will pull me down for sometime. I now realize that the better perspective is that as long as the Institute is moving in the positive direction towards its vision and growing at a healthy pace, it does not really matter if some people leave or some setbacks occur – as both are inevitable. We just have to learn from them, and move on…..

I would like to add a personal view on this. The above holds for professional life. In personal life and interactions, it is probably the exact opposite – friends and relatives will often remember the things you did not do or things you did which offended them. They are likely to forget all the good you may have done before that. I.e. personal relationships often, unfortunately, get defined by the negative interactions and experiences, rather than the positive ones.

 

Some Life Lessons from IIIT-Delhi’s Journey

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Recently I completed my second and final term as Director. In my last last convocation (7th for IIIT-Delhi) speech as Director, I talked about the decade long IIIT-Delhi journey, and some life lessons from it. While they were directed at graduating class, I am sharing some more general ones here. Full text of the speech and video of the report and speech, as well as speeches of the Chancellor, Chairman, and Chief Guest, are available on the convocation webpage. (For information – I continue in IIIT-Delhi as Distinguished Professor, and will soon be on Sabbatical – hope to be able to write more then.)

Focus on creating / generating value. I have always believed that organizations and individuals are valued by society and people based on the value they deliver. At IIIT-Delhi, we maintain a sharp focus on delivering value in whatever we do. In courses, we ensure that there are good conceptual learning as well as actual engineering capability development, in research we focus on publishing in good quality venues and impact, in our infrastructure management we ensure that things like STP are actually working, etc,

It is an easier path to just work without focusing on outcomes, or just manage the perception by talking loudly about whatever one has done or even not done. But in the long run, the focus on value delivery will always pay. For IIIT-Delhi, this focus has already shown good results – our graduates get good opportunities in jobs as well as higher studies, our faculty is highly respected, and now we have been included in BRICS rankings as well.

So, the first life lesson from our journey is that you must always deliver value to the organization you work for, including your own start-up. Never lose sight of this, and more importantly never rely on short cuts for “managing the perception” of value, which are inevitably short lived.

You can achieve a lot. There is no doubt that at IIIT Delhi we have achieved a lot in 10 years. Let me highlight some;

  • From one floor in library building in Dwarka to a campus that Hon’ble CM said is of one of the most beautiful he has seen
  • From an intake of 60 to more than 600 this year overall.
  • From 1 program to 6 programs of Btech, 8 specializations in MTech
  • From 1 faculty to over 75 including visiting
  • A strong Phd program with over 160 scholars, bigger than even the older IITs in CSE

When I look at IIIT Delhi today and what we have, it is quite remarkable actually. If you ask me whether this is what I had imagined – absolutely not. In all honesty, if I was asked that this is what we have to build in 10 years – not clear I would have taken up the challenge. I suppose the same is true for all colleagues who joined in early stages. We all had a vision of creating an institution that is globally respected for research as well as education and some plans, but the actual achievement was done through steady contribution year after year towards the vision.

So, the second life lesson is that you keep chipping away, keep contributing, keep growing, and over the years you can achieve a lot. Actually a lot more than what you can imagine today.

Effort and Support from Colleagues and Family. But to do this – you have to put in the requisite effort, and you also need support from colleagues and family. There is no gain or achievement without effort. Yes, luck matters, but the main determinant which is in your control which influences the outcomes is your effort. You have to put in solid effort on an ongoing basis to achieve success – and you have to seek support from colleagues by leading by example. For the first many years I routinely worked at night from home and over weekends – it is only now that I had started reducing my effort to allow me some time for my innings after the current one as founding Director of IIIT Delhi gets over. And I know many of my faculty colleagues often put in 10 to 15 hour days often. Our team involved with campus construction and running often put in long hours.

Clearly this is not possible without strong support from your family. In my case, it was clear that my mindshare for family matters had reduced considerably. Once when I noted that I am usually home at night, my wife rightfully observed that “while you are physically here, your mind is in IIIT-Delhi”.

The third lesson is, that effort matters hugely. Do not rely on luck – rely on your effort. Hopefully, luck will also come as the famous quote by Jefferson says “The harder I work the more luck I have”. And seek support from your family and colleagues.

Innovate in your sphere – there is always room.  In 2008 perhaps a dozen new Institution started by Govt. At IIIT Delhi we have perhaps innovated the most. Let me give some examples:

  • Admission – while we adopted the common exam JEE, we innovated by recognizing achievements beyond a single exam by having the framework of bonus marks. This has worked very well and is something that I hope can get replicated.
  • In our course design and teaching – we have added post conditions, expected outcomes, etc, to make education learning focused rather than teaching focused.
  • We championed the much needed interdisciplinary programs at BTech level – the only Institute in the country to have some CS+X programs (e.g. CS+Applied Maths, CS+Design, CS+Biosciences, CS+Social Sciences).
  • For faculty we have system of yearly feedback, tenure, etc, to help them achieve their potential
  • We were perhaps the first govt institution to actually hold full faculty selections overseas
  • Our campus management has many innovations – e.g. using FMS, BMS, etc

The point is that we are also within the same overall environment as other institutions – but we have innovated in many aspects. And let me assure you that innovation is badly needed in higher education in our country.

So, the fourth lesson is that regardless of what is your job or the environment, there is always scope for innovation and we must innovate. In this fast changing world, those who will not innovate will not survive long. And individuals who will drive innovation will be valued more and more.

Autonomy in Admissions

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In two earlier posts, we discussed some key aspects of academic autonomy and administrative autonomy in an Higher Education Institution (HEI). Admission is another aspect of academic autonomy, which is very important in India due to the paucity of high quality education opportunities. It deserves a separate discussion, and is the subject of this note.

We will assume that admission to an HEI has to be based on some criteria and is not arbitrary, and that the criteria are transparent and well published. Latter is highly desirable in India, as lack of a transparent criteria can lead to all sorts of abuses. (Please note that this is not an inherent property of admission to an HEI – many US universities do not have a transparent and published criteria for admission.)

Autonomy in admission for an HEI then means that the HEI can have its own (transparent) criteria for admitting students. Clearly, complete autonomy, particularly in publicly funded HEIs is not feasible, as social and other goals of the Government / country (e.g. equity, reservations) will have to be satisfied by such Institutions. However, even after complying with policies for social goals (e.g. reservations), publicly funded HEIs do not have sufficient autonomy to establish their admission criteria. For example, if an IIT wants to have a criteria which will encourage gender diversity it cannot do it on its own. Or if it wants to have a criteria to have diversity in terms of students coming from diverse economic backgrounds, or education backgrounds including commerce and social sciences, it cannot do it. Even if an IIT decides that for its Computer Science programs, it will only consider proficiency in Maths and Physics, but not chemistry, currently there is no way this can be done.

The main cause of lack of autonomy in admitting students by HEIs is that as a nation we have equated national / state tests, which assess the test takers ability in some ways, with admission criteria for HEIs. So much so, that many such tests are called entrance or admission tests. We confuse the goal of test conducting organisations like CBSE, or the newly formed National Testing Service, which is to conduct tests and report normalised scores in tests, with the act of admitting students in a HEI, which is the role and responsibility of the HEI.

To clarify this further, the role of a test conducting body is to conduct tests in a fair manner in different subjects, using questions that reasonably assess the knowledge and understanding of the subject, and then giving proper scores (hopefully normalised) to the test takers in different papers/subjects. This in itself is a huge responsibility in a large country like ours.  Admission to a University, on the other hand, is squarely the responsibility of the university, and not of the test conducting body. It is up to the HEI to decide its criteria and how marks of the tests are used in that criteria. This is indeed how our system works when Board marks are used for admission – the Boards conduct the exams and publish the results, and universities use it in some manner for admission – some will take marks in all subjects, some will take marks only in some subjects, etc.

In exam like JEE, these two very distinct purposes got intermixed. This may have been due to historical reasons –  the original five IITs decided to use the performance in an exam (JEE) which they designed and conducted as the main criteria for admission. They then conducted the exam and used the score – the exam patterns changed as IITs saw fit (e.g. in early days English was also included in JEE, which was later removed).  But now exams like JEE (Mains) are conducted by a separate agency, and hundreds of HEIs use the test – but the old thinking of having tests only in three subjects, and combining them with equal weight to give a rank, still continues. This essentially forces all who use JEE mains to necessarily use the criteria implied in JEE rank, that is, that admission is based on total marks in Physics, Chemistry, and Maths, with each subject getting equal weight. Effectively, an HEI using the JEE exam, does not really have true autonomy – even to have a criteria which, for example, gives more weight to Maths than Physics,  or if it wants to give weight to some other parameters like class XII marks, performance in some other test, etc. is a challenge.

So, national tests like JEE which take the role of admission criteria also, take away the autonomy in admission from the HEI. With such exams and most HEIs using it directly for admission, for an HEI to evolve its own (transparent) criteria is far more challenging. (Though some possibilities exist – IIIT-Delhi, for example, allows for bonus marks for various other achievements  for admission.)

With the coming of National Testing Service, one hopes that the body will conduct exams in various subjects and give normalised scores – as is done by exams like SAT, ACT, GRE, etc, some of which have, besides aptitude,  tests in different subjects.

Each HEI can then evolve and publish its criteria for admission – which can use scores on different subjects in some manner, as well as other parameters (e.g. performance in school Board, awards received, etc), if the HEI wishes. This will allow an HEI to assert its autonomy in admissions, and also encourage development of a range of criteria more suited for the HEI and its programs. E.g. some IIITs may use only Maths score which is more relevant for its programs,  some chemical technology institute may use only Physics and Chemistry, some program (say in Computational Biology) may use Maths, Chemistry, and Biology, etc.

A diversity of criteria, which may use scores from different subjects in the national or board tests, also provides students with more opportunities and flexibility. For example, if a student does not like Chemistry, she can focus on other subjects, and get admission in a good HEI that does not use chemistry performance in its criteria. Also, if a student appears in many subjects but does not do well in some subject, does not loose out completely for admission in all HEIs – currently the impact of doing one test badly is on the rank, and that impacts admission to all HEIs that use the rank.

With each HEI required to evolve and publish its criteria, while in the short term we may see many using the criteria that is currently used for rank, overtime criteria will evolve, and HEIs will be able to tune the criteria to admit students that are most suited for the HEI and the programs it offers.

 

Academic Autonomy of Institutions

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It is widely accepted globally that autonomy of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) is necessary for them to excel and achieve their mission. Lack of sufficient autonomy is likely to lead to institutions that are not dynamic, and such institutions cannot excel. No wonder, given the low level of autonomy in our HEIs, none of them show up in top 200 in the world.

The European Commission has identified four dimensions of autonomy – organizational, financial, staffing, and academic. Here we look at autonomy in academics – the main raison d’être  of HEIs. We will focus only on independent HEIs governed by Act/Statutes, or which are deemed to be university, as affiliated colleges, by definition, have very little academic autonomy. (In an earlier post, we looked at the issues relating to administrative and financial autonomy.)

What does autonomy really mean in academics. An autonomous HEI will have the full powers to take decisions on the key aspects of education, namely: start new academic programs; decide the structure and contents of a program, as well as the syllabus of courses in the programs; and how to teach the courses, and how to assess students’ performance. (Admission to these programs is another aspect of academic autonomy – but we will not discuss it in this note.)

Starting of new programs has some restrictions from the regulators – mostly UGC and AICTE for universities and technical education (and others). One key restriction is the duration of the various programs – e.g. a BA/BSc must be 3 years, while a BTech/BE must be 4 years. While, such restrictions exist in some countries, the modern thought is to go towards credit based requirements for degrees and specify the credit ranges for various degrees rather than duration. For example, in most western countries and Singapore, for a Bachelor degree in Engineering, while the program is designed to be completed in 4 years, instead of duration, credits needed for the program are specified. A student can finish them and earn his/her degree in less than 4 years (say 3.5, though it is quite uncommon) or more than 4 (average time for completion in US is closer to 5 years.) Some Institutions in India have moved towards a credit-based system, but also stipulate the minimum duration due to prevailing rules. The issue of having a BA/BSc of 4 years remains a contentious point where the freedom of HEIs is curtailed.

There are also some restrictions in which areas a program can be started in. For example, a list of areas is stipulated by AICTE, and it is expected that a degree like BTech/BE can be only granted in these disciplines/areas. This approach will have minimal impact on autonomy of HEIs, if the list is dynamic, and HEIs are permitted to propose new degree programs, as is done in some countries. In the rapidly changing world, degree programs are often needed in new and emerging areas (e.g. Data Science, Machine Learning, Neuroscience, …), as well as interdisciplinary areas. Fortunately, in this aspect, the regulation implementation is of “light touch” and institutions, particularly the ones that are empowered by an Act (e.g. IITs), are not really constrained by this.

For the last two aspects of academic autonomy, which impact the quality of programs and instruction the maximum, most Act created universities have complete autonomy. They decide the structure of a program in terms of core and elective courses, which courses to offer, what to teach in a course, how to teach, and how to assess students.

Given this autonomy, why do we then see outdated program structures and course syllabi? Why does one not see more responsiveness from the HEIs to the changing demands and needs. For this, one has to look at the academic decision making within the HEI.

In most HEIs decisions regarding programs and academics rest with either an Academic Senate or Council. This body deliberates and decides about new programs, changes to programs, courses, etc. And it is here the real impediment lie. Many of these Senates / Councils are too large with members being mostly senior faculty, and with marginal or no representation from Industry or Alumni or other bodies who can provide different perspectives. These bodies are often not responsive to the needs of the country/economy and often look at issues through a narrow academic prism, without giving due value to things like developing strong skills for careers.

Unless the internal decision making structures are suitably changed, we are not likely to see much change in the quality of education being delivered.  The structure of these bodies is often encoded in their Act or Statutes – hence changing them will require Government initiative.  E.g. for IITs, the Academic Senate structure is given in the IIT Act of 1961, and it has all the Professors, making it now a body of over 200 senior people for older IITs. To have more responsive academic bodies, It is necessary that only a broad structure of the Senate/Council be specified in the Act, while the details of the structure are evolved by each institution, and may even evolve with time. E.g for IITs, it is hugely desirable to include many more alumni, members from industry, junior faculty, etc.

To summarise, while there are some key constraints on HEIs in the academic dimension, the level of autonomy available to HEIs is significant. It is their internal academic decision making that is largely responsible for what is happening or not happening in the quality of education being delivered in these HEIs. And unless the internal structures are made more representative and compact, we cannot expect the education in the HEIs to be responsive to the needs of the country, society, and industry.

In Search of Excellence

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Pursuit of excellence is an integral part of Academics. I had written an article in Times Of India editorial page a few years ago. I am giving that article below. Many years have passed since that article and during this period much more attention has been given to (lack of?) excellence in our country – largely due to the absence of Indian Institutions in the global ranking of universities. There is a stronger desire to have some Institutions globally ranked and respected. As global ranking is largely based on research excellence and impact, there is a need to better understand the reasons behind why excellence often eludes our institutions. I am writing a followup note on this topic – in the process I found that the article I wrote a few years ago is still very relevant. Hence am sharing it here.

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Think of the names of the best-known scientists in India, and examine their resumes. Inevitably you find that, besides being great scientists and researchers, they were heads, directors or chairpersons of various committees, advisers to ministers/the prime minister, etc. It will be very hard to find a well-known scientist in India who did not become an administrator particularly in the past few decades. (In an exercise we did, a few PhD students were asked to list the Indian scientists whose names they knew and then check their CVs all 21 scientists listed had held significant administrative positions.)

Now let us look at the best researchers in the scientifically advanced countries. Of the 27 Nobel laureates in physics of the last 10 years, only seven hold any major administrative post.

This reflects a basic difference in how science and scientists are viewed in our society and how they view themselves, as compared to the situation in the scientifically advanced countries. We still remain a very hierarchy and title conscious society, where power and title are regarded more important goals than anything else (except money perhaps). When a scientist does good work and is recognised globally, the best way the government and the civic structures seem to reward the person is by giving an administrative title and role, so he becomes a ‘big administrator’ who will rub shoulders with the ‘powers-that-be’. Not only is the thinking of administrators and government like this, this is the nature of thinking of scientists and academics also after an individual has achieved some name in science, he starts looking for ‘elevation’ as an administrator.

We do not seem to have reached a state of evolution in our scientific community where science and research can be ends in themselves, and not a means to a ‘higher’ end. To be fair, a good scientist or a researcher starts with intentions of doing great science/research. However, slowly after a decade or two, often he starts facing the ‘what next’ question. Rather than striving harder to reach a higher level in science and research, either due to complacency which over the years sets in as it is systematically encouraged, or due to lack of recognition or visibility as compared to administrators, or some other reason, remaining a scientist no longer seems sufficient. The senior scientist then starts aspiring for administrative positions with power.

This situation is not likely to change unless there is pride and satisfaction in being an academic or a researcher, and unless there are icons in society that are academics and researchers. In the last two decades, people like founders of companies such as Infosys have created new icons. This has put entrepreneurs and business people on a high pedestal you can see that they no longer feel ‘below’ the bureaucracy but treat them, and are treated as, equal (or sometimes even superior as they are rich).

Similar icons need to be created in academics scientists who are held in high esteem and are ‘stars’ not for the position they hold but for the science and academics they did and contributions they made to the furthering of science, research and education. And the way the government should support them is by giving them labs and grants, awards, monetary rewards, naming buildings, roads and the like after them, promoting them in national and global forums as icons, etc, and not merely by giving them administrative posts.

The management of scientific and academic institutions also needs to change. They have to imbibe the value system where an administrator feels pride in what scientists and academics have done rather than what he as an individual has achieved. And instead of feeling dwarfed by the fame of a scientist working ‘under’ him, an administrator ought to see that as a sign of his doing a good job that should be rewarded.

Unless we reach a stage where the stars are the scientists, and the administrators are understood to be good only to the extent they provide support to create such stars, we should not hope for much excellence. Excellence in research cannot be achieved by half-hearted commitment to the pursuit of knowledge. We must develop a value system where a star scientist wishes to remain a scientist and is respected and admired for the science and research he does.

It should, however, be added that a scientific establishment, if it is to achieve any levels of excellence, must be headed by a scientist/academic of decent calibre who understands excellence and what is needed for it. Putting an average scientist/academic or a bureaucrat in charge can be a recipe for disaster, as such a person is likely to surround himself with average people (“An A hires an A, but a B hires a C”). But the administrator must support the value system in which he is mostly a facilitator for getting good science and research done. The limelight rightfully belongs to the brilliant scientists and researchers doing excellent work.

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