Does India Have What It Takes to be a Knowledge Superpower?
Photo Credit: Quartz
By Romi Jain

Does India Have What It Takes to be a Knowledge Superpower?

Jul. 03, 2017  |     |  0 comments

The stated goal of the Indian Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) in formulating a new education policy is to make India a “knowledge superpower.” The MHRD adds that the project demands equipping students with “the necessary skills and knowledge” and developing manpower in science, technology, academia, and industry.

However, such cures fall short of the correct diagnosis of the disease afflicting academic and research practices in the country. This is the tumor that is an outgrowth of the culture of jugaad or exigent improvisations and outward embellishments of reform without substance. It permeates the vast structure of education and its paraphernalia: research, tests, assessments, learning, curriculum, and pedagogy. What is missing in the reform proposals is the emphasis on requisite disposition, academic and research ethics, and professionalism.

It was recently revealed that India accounts for 35 percent of publications in bogus journals, which is one of the illuminations of India’s dysfunctional culture of knowledge creation and dissemination. While a section of analysts attribute this state of affairs to the University Grants Commission’s (UGC) tying up research publications with evaluations of faculty performance, the deeper issue is the temptation to apply short cuts to avoid the painstaking task of producing quality research. More so in social sciences, the attitude of “somehow to be published” is reflected in overdoses of cut-and-paste functions — it looks like what happens at the kite flying festival of Makar Sakranti when the string of the kite keeps elongating with pieces of thread procured from different sources. This is jugaad that underpins the piecemeal tweaks in published articles.

A slightly related malpractice is in the publication market. One can come across predatory publishing companies that seduce prospective authors with enchanting marketing slogans such as “empowerment of budding scholars” as well as the “fine quality of print.” But the practice of charging money for publication might actually be hidden, and disclosed only once the author has made a number of revisions upon review. Exposure and blacklisting of such businesses is absolutely essential to weed out actors that bring down the credibility of research.

India’s institutional map is dotted with structures bearing imported terminology such as think tanks, incubation centers, and research parks, in addition to colleges and universities that boast of world-class infrastructure. Indeed, one is swept away by the ambiance of imposing buildings, shiny and sleek furniture and floors, and neat labs and libraries.

However, if emulation is important at all, there is something much more significant for reform. First, early initiation of young students into academic and research rigor and ethics is crucial for commitment to excellence. For instance, in American undergraduate classes, citations and references are parts of assignments and tests. In India, this requirement mostly belongs in the domain of researchers or in cases where the purpose is publication. Further, in the syllabus that is handed out on the first day of the class in the US, professional honesty is defined with guidelines on the avoidance of plagiarism. In the Indian context, exact reproduction of text, without the need for citations, may be considered as the hallmark of exam preparedness.

There is an imperative need for the infusion of the culture of rigor and professionalism in the publishing world and among authors, researchers, faculty, students, and the educational administration.

Second, another questionable practice relates to examination grading or “copy checking,” as it is known in India. In most higher education institutions in India, evaluations are done as a whole rather than through a clearly-defined rubric of parameters such as content, technicality, and originality. The lack of such rubrics carries the risk of arbitrariness, carelessness, and unfairness in evaluations.

Third, one of the examples of mentoring as a professional obligation in foreign institutions is the norm of co-authorship in which students are the first authors and professors the second. This practice is an antidote to the attitudinal disdain for professor-student collaboration in India where hierarchy is steeped in the mindsets of PhD supervisors, which rather sometimes translates into exploitation of the tradition of guru dakshina in treating students — specifically doctoral candidates — as housekeepers. A famous TV show of early 1990s, Flop Show, sarcastically depicted such academic corruption in one of its episodes. Even though encouragement to young scholars is lately being witnessed in institutional schemes for research advancement, professionalism — the sidestepping of personal interests — in mentoring and coaching is quintessential.

A simple adaptation of Western syllabi or a blend of domestic and foreign content will not be effective for curriculum reform unless a clear sense of purpose is discernible. Similarly, the mere talk of a “knowledge-based economy” as envisaged in the new education policy draft is a shallow guide. Even though the consultative process elicited feedback and recommendations from across the country, a solid philosophical framework is required to provide direction. For example, how will the interests or motivation of the individual learner be aligned with the national goals of education? How to strike a balance between progressivism (student-centric pedagogy) and essentialism (focus on core content and teacher-centric pedagogy)? What is holistic education and how can it be put into practice?

It is no secret that universities’ vice chancellors are often appointed on the basis of their affiliation to the ruling political party regardless of the level of their calibre and credentials for the position. As a result, even persons who are less than mediocre are entrusted with administrative and academic responsibilities, which is akin to giving the command of a ship to a novice. As a result, such incompetent appointees are indifferent to improving the research quality of their institutions or upgrading the standards of teaching and learning.

This is not to suggest that the Western landscape is perfect or that non-Indian academic and research systems are flawless. The purpose of this commentary was to conduct an appraisal of the entrenched practices whose persistence will only hinder the growth of knowledge and research in India. There is an imperative need for the infusion of the culture of rigor and professionalism in the publishing world and among authors, researchers, faculty, students, and the educational administration. The reform of a broader ecology will be a building block for India’s emergence as a “knowledge superpower,” if policy makers are serious about this ambition.

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