Monday, February 19, 2007

Gautam Desiraju: China shows the way in science education

Prof. Gautam Desiraju, a chemist at the University of Hyderabad, has an op-ed in today's Hindu on how China has raced past a lot of countries to become a big player in international science. Here's a key part of the argument about where our weaknesses are [with bold emphasis added]:

A word about student numbers and quality is necessary. The second-tier Chinese universities have around 100 PhD students each in the chemistry departments. The CAS chemistry institutes have nearly 1,000 PhD students. A single institution, the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry (a unit of CAS), has 400 PhD students, mostly trained for future industrial positions within China. Such a thing is unheard of in India, where the student output is rushing headlong to the U.S. where it settles for positions with little or no responsibility, and often lack of tenure and security.

However, the number of PhD students per institution is roughly the same in China and India with each IIT, IISc, Hyderabad University or CSIR lab having around 100 chemistry PhD students. So in terms of efficiency, each of our students is far less efficient than his or her Chinese counterpart. It means our students are not well trained at the M.Sc. level and this, in turn, goes back to the B.Sc. (where much of the trouble begins).

Our most important screen for PhD admission, namely the CSIR/UGC NET exam, is just not discriminating enough and it is letting a lot of sub-standard students pass after attending coaching classes. This is not so in China where they are spending real money at the undergraduate level.

Without sounding unduly harsh, let me say that we lack the will, determination, and capacity for hard work to develop 100 excellent universities like the Chinese. Perhaps developing 20 good universities with funding at the Chinese levels is not beyond us given the present scenario and current realities in India. This would call for an outlay of Rs.2,000 crore a year. In about 10 years (and Rs.20,000 crore later), the benefits would become apparent.


  1. pradeepkumar pi said...

    Check Ramachandra Guhas take on "Real Universities"

    Telegraph,Calutta, Feb 17 2007

    - What ails the universities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras?

    "The parlous state of our universities gets far fewer attention than it merits, from our political class (which is perhaps not unexpected) and also from our media (which is less easy to understand). For every story about declining universities, there are perhaps a hundred stories about inadequate infrastructure. However, if Indian democracy is to deepen itself, and if the fruits of economic growth are to be more fairly and sustainably distributed, then we need first-class universities even more than we need four-or-eight-lane highways"

  2. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    "the CSIR/UGC NET exam is just not discriminating enough"

    Since I went to IISc, I never bothered to learn about the NET. I was shocked to discover a year ago that, at least in physics, the syllabus is basically high-school syllabus -- not even undergraduate. This is why all the elite research institutes have their own entrance exams.

    It's the same thing at the high-school level -- CBSE exams are a lottery, state board even more so, so you have a whole host of institutional entrance exams to deal with. We badly need standardised tests; I'd argue that just introducing something like SAT or GRE in individual subjects, well-administered and mandatory for admission to any reputable place, would do wonders in keeping our school and college teachers (and curriculums) honest.

  3. Pratik Ray said...

    Sorry for the long post, but articles like this really want to make people let off some steam.

    The rot in the system starts at high school and continues though out undergrad and masters level. The present school education system is too demanding on students, who despite managing to master concepts quite well, suffer a burnout when they enter college, and are more therefore interested in non-academic pursuits.

    The undergrad courses themselves, in my humble opinion, is mired in the dark ages. Often, the challenge in undergrad courses is much lesser than what we had during high school. This rather takes away from the fun of doing things. Its a pity that elite institutes like IITs, BHU and NITs take students through a gruelling entrance and then subject them to a plethora of sub standard courses which require much less application and evoke lesser interest than the basic science courses at school. No wonder that after such a largely disguisting college life (academically) by and large students prefer to stay away from academics for the sake of academics. If I were to honestly calculate the amount of time I spent beyond classroom during my undergrad career, it would be an average of abt 1hr/day. But that was still enough to score close to 84%. When we have a system which lets students get away with such minimal effort, it is only natural that the students emerge without knowing the basic ideas in their fields.

    The trend by the way, continues in graduate studies as well. As 1st year MTech students we were once told that stereographic projections were too tough a topic to be handled at masters level! That too when the topic is usually covered in decent details at the undergrad courses. Often, it is also assumed implicitly by some (thankfully not all!) of the faculty that students opting for masters/PhD do so only because they couldnt manage anything else, and that they are essentially 2nd rate. With such a scenario, you can pretty well imagine how high the morale and confidence of the students soar! This leads to the lecturers lowering the standards of the graduate courses. With such a background, isnt it obvious that graduate students in India will fall behind international counterparts.

    I have no idea of the NET exams, but I really wonder whether with an undergraduate education system like the one we have in India, a "truly discriminating" exam would end up having enough students on the merit list.

    I am sorry if I sound pessimistic, but I speak as one who, having "enjoyed" the freedom in my 4 years of undergrad studies and 2 years of masters, realizes later that such "freedom" actually set back my career by 6 years, may be more.

  4. Narasimhan said...

    Dear Abinandhan,

    The CSIR/JRF/NET test syllabus (at least in Physics) is definetely not high school standard as Rahul mentions in his comment. I can't recall how it was some years back. I just checked CSIR webpage and it is given in the following URL

    I can't imagine any high school (anywhere in the world) teaching Lagrangian and Hamiltonian formalism of mechanics. If I remember correctly the PHYSICS 101 taught in most under-graduate curriculum is also only Newtonian mechanics. This is just about mechanics and the same argument will hold true for other sub sections.

    There are two types of selection for which the CSIR conducts the exam. Eligibility for JRF and eligibility for lectureship. People who qualify for JRF also qualify for lectureship but NOT vice-versa. In the colleges affiliated to multitudes of universities, the eligibility criteria for a lecturer post is M.Sc along with the eligibility for lectureship as determined by the aforementioned CSIR exam. A similar criteria holds in non-natural sciences subjects too. I don't think research institutions accept having CSIR lectureship qualification as a qualifying criteria for their Ph.D admissions. What they look for is JRF. Please correct me if I am wrong.

    Confining the discussion to natural sciences, typically around 50-100 candidates (each exam) are selected for JRF, which in my opinion is a fairly small number. I do seriously think, at least the person whom I know that qualified and that didn't qualify, that JRF is a pretty good screening exam from.

    Since only around 100 students have JRF, it makes it mandatory for the research institutions to have their own exam. But offlate there are common entrance tests for various exams, like for M.Sc of all IITs, for Ph.D admission for IMsc, SAHA and a few other. Finally the institutes are going to admit candidates based on the interview, which I must say is pretty tough and quite probing.

    To put the blame on just the entry scheme for bad research is not really correct.

    Regarding Pratik's comment about the undergraduate syllabus being so sub-standard in "elite" institutions, i think most places it is the instructor who decides how he constructs his/her coursework and how rigorous they want it to be. Definetely for interested students there are avenues for doing term projects and not all faculties are disinterested.

    I don't want to use up more of the comment space.

    With Regards

  5. KissFM said...

    To continue the lament of India's achievement vis-a-vis china here is an interesting analysis by the Office of naval research

    Assessment of India's research literature
    http://www.fas. org/irp/world/ india/research. pdf