Thankyou climate change! Mango season is arriving in Kerala a whole month earlier than five years ago. Today, I had my first mango. There is something exquisite about tasting the first mango of the season, sucking at the firm flesh that melts sweetly in an implosion of sticky juice. Shan Nawas, our breakfast waiter, says that in his village the mangoes are already ripe compared to the end of March or early April when he was a child. There are more than 20 varieties of mango, including blue ones (although the flesh is still golden). Shan’s mother has planted 12 different types in their garden. I think we might have to visit this village!
Shan is a university educated engineer, but he can’t find work in his field that pays well enough so he’s waiting tables, hoping to go to America one day. But Obama’s recovery plan has left him little hope there. More than 60% of the migrant workers affected by the new visa rules are Indians. The newspapers here are trying to put a brave face on it, pointing out that India will gain from the newly swollen workforce, but the truth is that the economic climate is also effecting the domestic job market – two major IT firms in Bangalore and Hyderbad have closed in the past week alone. Even those engineers graduating from the elite Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), which are so competitive that of the 150,000 students that apply for places each year, only 3,000 are admitted, aren’t shielded from job woes. More than 60% of final-year IIT students are yet to find job placements, with many fearing uncertainty for months in an unprecedented nail-biting wait. In previous decades, more than 90% of graduating IIT students were snapped up by mid-February – mostly in high-paying jobs at top-performing international companies – with the remainder finding job placements by March.
Last year, the government opened 6 new IITs across the country, and more are planned for this year. It’s all part of academic-turned prime minister Manmohan Singh’s bid to transform India’s research landscape and accelerate the development of a knowledge economy. But shifting the country from its current 80% agricultural-based society into 21st-century industrialisation is hitting political roadblocks.
Singh’s much-heralded plans to create 14 new institutes of excellence are floundering before the first brick’s been laid. Squabbling between the government agencies charged with their implementation means the World Class Universities bill will likely miss this month’s deadline to pass in the short parliamentary session.
Each year, more than a quarter of India’s undergraduates leave the country to study or work in universities and institutes in the West. It’s a trend that Singh was hoping to reverse when he announced the $3 billion universities plan last June, imbuing the move with a sense of urgency and enthusiasm that has all but petered out in the ensuing months of infighting amongst stakeholders. The newly set-up, and Singh-endorsed, National Knowledge Commission favors a US model for the new institutes – encouraging investment from private companies and philanthropic endowments, introducing competition for faculty positions and performance-rated salary schemes, yearly syllabi revisions to maintain course currency, and, most controversially, financial and curriculum autonomy to enable the universities to set their own student fees and generate revenue from industry collaborations.
Such proposals represent a sea-change for this relatively young nation that was created on Mahatma Gandhi principles of social equality. But it is precisely the career-for-life, government-set civil service salary scheme that has stultified Indian universities, to the extent that many ‘academics’ I meet are happy to while away their time to pensionable retirement, dictating occasional classes from ancient textbooks and not producing a single piece of original research during their entire careers.
Indian scientists author just 2.7% of the total number of peer reviewed articles and India’s contribution to the top ranked scientific journals is less than 1% compared to more than 60% for the US. Although there are 350,000 undergraduate engineers in India, compared to 70,000 in the US, India spends just 3% of its GDP on research and development, compared to the average 25% of GDP by OECD countries.
Singh’s desire for radical change is not shared by the University Grants Commission, which opposes all of the NKC proposals, and which is backed by no less than the Singh’s own Minister for Human Resources, Arjun Singh. Together, the ministry and the UGC have introduced their own draft plan for the universities based on traditional lines and with the government fully in control of running each. If the bill currently being prepared by the Prime Minister’s Office, which is in tune with the NKC proposals, is not passed in the next few weeks, the only hope for his innovative plans would be the ordinance route, in which the government bypasses parliament to secure the act.
A bill for a parallel and less controversial 15 new central universities was passed in January without incident. Certainly there is interest from academics in new universities: when the vice-chancellors’ posts were advertised last month, there were more than 1,000 applications for the 15 positions.
But hopes may already be fading for the grander scheme. Before the act has even been passed, the ministry has renamed it; the World Class University System Act will now be known as the National University System Act. “We can’t name a child ‘genius’ who is at risk of growing up clueless,” a ministry official explained.