Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Chemistry in India

Prof. E. Arunan and Prof. G.R. Desiraju of IISc, Bangalore, along with their colleagues Dr. R. Brakaspathy (DST, New Delhi), and Dr. Sivaram (NCL, Pune) have published an article entitled Chemistry in India: Unlocking the Potential in Angewandte Chemie, a leading journal in the field. There is much in there for chemists to discuss and debate.

I want to excerpt one paragraph that invokes two causes of a general nature for the sorry state of higher education in India. Specifically, I am highlighting two things in it, the first for a possible factual error, and the second for its problematic framing.

A sound system of undergraduate education is a sine qua non of research excellence. Most Indian universities have had to contend with increasingly large numbers of aspiring students. Consequently, they ceded undergraduate education to smaller affiliated colleges and restricted themselves to postgraduate instruction and research. These affiliated institutions lacked funds, quality teaching staff, and research focus. They were also particularly vulnerable to political interference. It is no surprise that the quality of undergraduate training deteriorated rapidly. One of the casualties of the declining financials of affiliated colleges was the virtual elimination of laboratory instruction at the bachelor s and master s levels. This has had a telling effect on the preparedness of the students for research. There has been an attempt to bring back some undergraduate teaching into the ambit of a research university campus in some of the newly created institutions; however the numbers are still too small to make any noticeable impact. Most Indian universities have also had to battle with the competing demands of quantity and quality, in other words, the trade-off between equity and elitism in education. This battle is not likely to see any resolution soon, given the enormous diversity of the Indian population in terms of religion, ethnicity, language, class, and caste and income levels. [Bold emphasis added]

The first one is not quite correct: our universities never really were into UG teaching; with notable exceptions such as BHU, they have always been "just" examination-conducting bodies at the UG level. That they outsourced UG teaching to affiliated colleges because they "have had to contend with increasingly large numbers of aspiring students" doesn't ring true.

The second one is worth highlighting for the problematic framing that says our universities confront a "trade-off between equity and elitism". Even if this is not a comment about the reservation policy (I think it is), arguments based on a perceived dichotomy are not convincing. Especially since the notion that our universities are in the business of pursuing elitism would come as a shock to many. Or, more likely, the authors were talking about attracting elite students; in which case, I think the shock will be augmented by awe.