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Science Education in India – Why We Worry

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Summary

The Policy document lacks clarity in terms of allocation of funds, plan of action and intent of execution with respect to strengthening the scientific research and innovation at educational institutions. It would be expected that the final document would give a clear narrative on these.

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“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest” – Benjamin Franklin

 

Recently I happened to visit Bose Institute in Kolkata after a gap of almost three decades. Standing in this temple of science, in front of the replicas and prototypes of the remarkable, ahead of time, inventions by one of the most innovative physicists – turned – plant physiologist of India, Acharya J.C. Bose, several thoughts crossed my mind. I was once again awestruck at the ingenuity and dedication of a brilliant scientist who contributed so significantly in spite of meagre research facilities or funds to support. What must have inspired Bose, Sir C.V. Raman, Srinivasa Ramanujam, Meghnad Saha, S.N. Bose and many others who grew up in British India to pursue higher education in science and excel in their respective fields? Irrespective of having studied in a modest vernacular village or city school or in a English medium missionary school, they exhibited outstanding scientific brilliance, which is recognised by the whole world. Then, as well as now.

 

It is now well accepted that from the era of East India Company, the education system introduced in India by the western rulers favoured their interest and supported their philosophy, often downgrading the Indian traditions, education system and ancient knowledge. Prevalence of caste-based discriminations and dominance of certain sections in the higher education institutions at that time helped the quick acceptance and popularity of the modern, English-medium schools, established by the European missionaries and educationists. Though the primary objective of such education might have been the creation of an English-speaking and west-leaning workforce to manage the various offices of the empire in the Indian sub-continent, it also opened several new windows of knowledge to a generation of eager youth wanting to explore the new avenues in numerous branches of science, technology, social studies and languages. Sometimes supported and encouraged by their families, or inspired by a mentor, or self-motivated like Ramanujam, who was simply consumed by that intense desire to work with numbers, such people pursued science for the love of it. Whatever employment they took, were only the means to pursue their scientific goals. Many of them were fiercely nationalist and sacrificed personal gains to build institutions of higher learning. They inspired many young minds and mentored them selflessly.

 

Compare that with the situation today. Soon after independence, efforts were made and steps taken to establish world class centres of higher scientific and technological education and research institutions. After seven decades, with nearly 800 degree granting universities, including Central, State, Private and Deemed-to-be universities; about 140 Institutions of National Importance (INI), which include 23 IITs, 7 AIIMSs, 31 NITs, 20 IIMs, 7 NIPERs, 7 IISERs and 20 IIITs, and more than 41,000 colleges, the present system of higher education in India annually enrols nearly 115 lakh graduates and post-graduates in science, engineering and technology. The picture looks impressive both in numbers and quality. But look deeper, and what emerges is rather disappointing. Something is wide amiss. Numbers do not add up! Where are we in educational competence, scientific excellence and technological innovations? In the QS Global Ranking of 1,000 universities from 82 countries, there are only 23 Indian institutions, with IIT Mumbai at 152, followed by IIT Delhi at 182 and IISc Bengaluru at 184 ranks.

 

However, our concern is not about the ranking, but the state of science education in general and its relevance in the present context. The Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) seeks to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” by 2030. Five of its seven targets focus on quality education and learning outcomes. So, how do we measure quality? The UGC has provided guidelines for evaluating the quality of education imparted by the Universities and the colleges affiliated to these. Similar methodologies are expected to be included in the NEP.

 

But how do the people in India perceive the merit of an educational institution? If it is a school, the quality of science education is judged more by the rates of IIT and AIIMS entrants. Similarly, the number of bureaucrats, Ambassadors and CEOs of super-Corporate Houses produced and the opportunities offered for overseas programmes are the main criteria for judging the quality of education a college or university offers. Not much is talked about the extra-ordinary scientific achievements, as evident by international peer recognition, inventions and innovations by its faculty and students. As a result, the meritorious students in the elite schools are identified early as the potential achievers and given special tutorials to prepare them for competitive examinations to professional courses. Almost all the students intending to pursue science stream in their Senior Secondary levels join Coaching Centres by class IX (sometimes as early as in the VII or VIII standard), or go for private tuitions, with the Arjun’s eye fixed on cracking the Entrance Exams and taking admission in one of the IITs or the medical colleges of repute. The unsuccessful ones, having missed the desired engineering/ medical colleges, study science. Even joining a world class Institution of National Importance (INI) like IISc or IISER is considered only the second choice by the majority of bright young boys and girls as well as their families and teachers. This, because at no stage they were taught about the honour of being recognised as a brilliant scientist. Or aspire to win a Nobel one day!

 

In their most formative years, the youth is conditioned to value education only as a means to get a dream job with ‘never heard of’ kind of pay packages. There is nothing wrong in aspiring to get a well-paid job, since improving one’s employability is one of the primary objectives of obtaining education. But first, we need mentors who would open the wonderful world of science to their pupils, kindle the appetite for learning, encourage experimentations to explore the unknown and expand their knowledge, which ideally should be the primary goal of being educated. Unfortunately, the best scientific brains seldom pursue a career in science education, almost never at the school level. So, the school children and college youth are ‘taught’ by their teachers preparing them to succeed at various levels of examination, not mentored for a career in science. Considering that the opportunity to study at good schools and colleges are rather limited to a small percentage of students, a vast majority of them receive their education from the most mediocre teachers with little or no interest in science. In the majority of stand-alone colleges, students get no opportunity for experimentation and trying something new.  As a result, on one hand the country is losing on its scientific excellence, and on the other those obtaining degrees from sub-standard colleges or universities are not found fit  enough for science-related employment. That the country is presently recording the highest level of unemployment, is making the situation worst.

 

The good news is that those at the helm of managing the education system in the country have taken note of the problem and are trying to improve the situation and revitalise it to make it relevant to the needs of the nation as well as its citizens. The proposed National Education Policy (NEP) is a step in the right direction. It is heartening to see that in the line of the developed countries, a National Research Foundation (NRF) has also been included as part of the NEP, with a view to build research capacities in the educational institutions. It draws useful directions from the European Union’s policy brief ‘The Economic Rationale for Public Research & Innovation Funding and its Impact’ (2017), which states that two-thirds of the economic growth of Europe from 1995 to 2007 came from research and innovation (R&I) and that an annual increase of 0.2% of GDP in R&D investment would result in an annual increase of 1.1% in GDP – a five-fold return. The draft NEP proposes to increase the overall proportion of Public Expenditure on Education from 10% to 20.9% in the next 10 years. Of this additional 10.9%, a major share of 5% has been assigned for strengthening the quality / faculty /operations at universities and colleges. In addition, it recommends greater contribution from the private sector and ‘Not-for-profit’ organisations in education.

 

However, the Policy document lacks clarity in terms of allocation of funds, plan of action and intent of execution with respect to strengthening the scientific research and innovation at educational institutions. It would be expected that the final document would give a clear narrative on these.

 

The following issues also need some deliberation:

  • Differentiate the needs for science and technology for a) Science education, b) Professional education and c) Vocational education at 3 levels ( the highest order will have the option of mainstreaming with a) or b) if achieved the desired levels of excellence).

 

  • Take definite steps to upgrade pedagogical capacity of the science teachers at school, college and university levels and ensure that every school has a science laboratory equipped with fundamental facilities, using innovative but commonplace items for experimentation that create curiosity in young minds.

 

 

  • Indicate the parameters of and mechanism for determining the budgetary allocations for science education and scientific research. For instance, by distributing already limited funds for scientific research to all universities may not yield a desirable result. Identify universities for research grants strictly on the bases of their performance, scientific strength and any special needs which are location specific. Hence, universities may be classified as ‘Only Teaching’ and ‘Teaching and Research’. However, ‘Only Teaching’ universities (with Bachelors Degree only) must also be given grants for discipline-wise functional laboratories, with all essential infrastructure and equipment.

 

  • Emphasise on learning about the history of science in India and the milestones achieved by Indian scientists in different fields. A course on History of Science must be made compulsory both at the school and college levels.

 

  • A number of scientists of Indian origin are doing excellent research in the countries abroad. Such persons may be invited to work in India on sabbatical and mentor young researchers. The existing scheme needs to be made more attractive and simplified.

 

  • Healthy collaboration with the private sector R&D facilities could be a win-win situation for faster development of technology and their innovative application. Best performing students may be given an opportunity to work as interns in the private labs with a possibility of placement.

 

  • Prioritise research areas for funding. Identify programmes in the critical fields for every five years. Strengthen the ones where India has a comparative advantage, or is at par with the global competence.

 

  • Rationalise the mechanism of monitoring for capital expenditure and research auditing by including qualitative indicators (for instance, not just the numbers of scientific papers published in peer-reviewed journals, or patents obtained, but also their originality, contribution in advancement of science and real value for public good). Encourage Frugal Innovations at every level.

 

Malavika Dadlani is a former Joint Director (Research), Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi.

 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the authors.
The other articles in this series can be found here.

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