Nurturing excellence in institutions of higher education


Nurturing excellence in institutions of higher   Nurturing excellence in institutions of higher education
> Recently, a statement by a Cabinet Minister has triggered country wide
> debate about how have IITs and IIMs earned their reputation.  The
> argument is that these institutions are respected because of the
> quality of the students and not because of the faculty.  There is no
> doubt that these institutions attract some of the best students of
> whom we are really proud of.  But teaching bright students is no less
> challenging.  Having said that, I will concede the point that there is
> a great deal of improvement which needs to be brought about in the
> quality of research and teaching at these institutions.  The way to
> improve quality, however, is not to denigrate these institutions but
> to engage with the outstanding and world renowned scholars in these
> institutions.  I will forgive the Minister for his ignorance and
> limited respect for the teachers who taught him and who have taught
> generations of students afterwards.  It is indeed a tragedy that he
> did not learn anything useful during his IIT days.  I am sure that
> itself is enough to give his teachers something to think about.  But
> there are larger issues at stake and we need to worry about them.
> Today, India has produced global benchmarks in eye care, heart care,
> promoting grassroots innovations, sending the most economical mission
> to moon and putting ten satellites in different orbits in a single
> launch, five of which were made abroad.  There must be a method in the
> madness.  I will like to first identify the factors which have helped
> us achieve global benchmark by which the world measures its own
> performance.  The time has passed when India should evaluate all its
> achievements by western standards.  There are areas in which India is
> creating the standards by which world measures its performance.  A
> country which cannot take pride in its genuine achievements obviously
> suffers a bit in the process.
> Excellence and private sector:
> Time and again, argument is made that IITs and IIMs and other
> institutions of higher learning are not doing so well because they are
> completely state funded.  By implication, the private funded
> institutions should be on the top in each discipline.  Unfortunately,
> the facts don’t bear it out.  The top academic institutions, almost
> without exception, are public funded.  But there are a large number of
> public funded institutions which are of poor quality.  So are the
> private funded institutions as well.  The argument therefore should be
> that if certain academic institutions have achieved excellence despite
> being public funded, should therefore the nature and mode of public
> funding be modified to make other institutions also as good.  But that
> is not what the debate is all about at the moment.
> Quality of students and that of the faculty:
> There is no doubt that IITs and IIMs receive some of the best
> students.  I am not sure, however, that we cannot receive even better
> students if we reduce our reliance on only quantitative scores and
> instead focus on multiple intelligences.  With all the limitation of
> measurement, should we assume that the best students would go to the
> institutions where faculty is not upto the mark?  Don’t we realize
> that students have a choice and they can easily go to private funded
> institutions, if they have better or world class faculty.   It is true
> that much more can be brought out by harnessing the energy of the
> students than what is done today.  Let me illustrate.  To promote
> originality and innovativeness, I proposed a portal to put the
> summaries of all the projects done by about a million technology
> students every year, way back in 2002.  Till 2009, I could not do
> anything nor could I mobilize any support from the state.  In 2009,
> one student of NIT, Surat, Hiranmay Mahanta got bugged by the idea and
> helped in creating with a small support from SRISTI
> (Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and
> Institutions), a voluntary organization.  Today, it has more than
> 100,000 projects done by 350,000 students from over 500 technology
> institutions including IITs, NITs and others.  A government which is
> concerned with promotion of merit, originality, social inclusion,
> linkage between MSME and academia should be expected to jump at the
> idea.  How else can accountability of students and the faculty be
> judged by the society unless the output of their cooperation is
> available for public scrutiny.  One cannot find projects done by
> students by MIT and Stanford, Cambridge and Oxford at one place.  In
> India, it has been done without any support from UGC, AICTE, HRD, etc.
>  The quality of the projects will also help us in finding out the
> faculty who are guiding outstanding projects.  Investing in those
> faculty would create the foundation for an indigenous, rooted Indian
> model for inclusive innovation and excellence.  But, we are not
> debating such models emerging in the country which can be critiqued,
> improved upon and bettered by more robust models.  If the minister has
> a better idea of improving quality and generating accountability, he
> should put it before the society and let the results of different
> models compete and eventually produce a synthesis of good ideas.
> Nurturing excellence:
> It is true that a great deal of effort is required to nurture
> excellence in institutions of higher learning.  The first right to
> comment on the process for producing excellence is of those academics
> who have achieved excellence by their work respected around the world.
>  The impact of their work should be measurable by unambiguous
> indicators.  Any institution builder who is serious about the mission
> of nurturing excellence would first identify such outstanding
> achievers in each discipline and listen to them.  It will be useful to
> ask the ministers concerned as to whether they can even list top five
> people in any discipline and if they can, next question should be,
> when did they talk to them last.  There are no short cuts in nurturing
> excellence.  If native genius cannot influence public policy and the
> institutions adequately, we should not grumble about the continuing
> situation.  It is our country and we have to collectively find answers
> to our problems.  Just as we cant outsource governance of our country
> to so called world class politicians, we cant outsource the task of
> generating excellence in educational institutions to other countries.
> The bureaucratic stranglehold may not have affected IITs and IIMs as
> much.  But, building institutions takes years, destroying requires no
> time.  We should ask ourselves whether the process of appointing
> directors or chairmen of these institutions could not be better.   We
> should also ask ourselves whether the concept of faculty governance
> has been adequately nurtured or strengthened.  When leaders seek
> support from above, they lose legitimacy below.  It is true of
> political structures and it is also true of institutions of higher
> learning.  The horizontal accountability (of institutions to the
> clients and constituents) cannot exist without vertical accountability
> (of the top management to the lower level of functionaries).  Indian
> Space Programme is one of the most effective, efficient and economical
> programme in the world.  It is true that they did not hire an IITian
> after 90s.  If they could do so much without the best engineers, how
> much more they could do if they could attract the best they want.  Do
> they have the freedom, will bureaucracy allow mission leaders to form
> their own team from people from academia, industry and within the
> programme.  Will we trust them and let them bring even more laurels
> for the country.  Same applies to DRDO, atomic energy and other
> strategic sectors.  The eco system which promotes innovation,
> inclusion and excellence by crossing the sectoral, hierarchical and
> other organizational boundaries will nurture excellence in every link
> of the chain.  Bi-partisan approach in appointments, providing support
> and respecting autonomy is necessary.  Mr.Minister may have crossed
> the boundary but he has served a useful purpose by triggering debate.
> Let us ask the hard questions to which India will no more seek
> approval for affirming its confidence in its own institutions from
> western countries but respect its achievements and modify the social
> contract between different institutions including the political ones.
> Gramsci once said, in war you attack the enemy at his weakest but in
> intellectual argument, you attack the enemy at his strongest.  I have
> tried to address the strongest argument of the minister.
> Anil K Gupta