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Social Science Education and Higher Education System: Need for a Wider Debate

A case is made out for streamlining funding for research toward universities, owing to superior quality of work and the presence of synergies between academics and research.

DISCUSSIONApril 5, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly68Social Science Education and ResearchT Krishna KumarAs I am dealing with collegiate and higher education and raising some controversial issues, I must caution the reader that I am an econometrician and not an educational economist. There is my namesake who also contributes articles to EPW. I might have compounded the confusion as I did work on resource allocation problems in universities more than 35 years ago. I thank Vinod Vyasulu for comments on a working draft. I alone am responsible for the contentsof the article. T Krishna Kumar (tkkumar@gmail.com)is a member of the guest faculty at IIM, Bangalore.A case is made out for streamlining funding for research towards universities, owing to the superior quality of work and the presence of synergies between academics and research.The article1 by A Vaidyanathan, the chairman of the Fourth Review Committee of Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR) – RC – gave an overview of the committee’s report. A few issues need to be raised re-gardinghigher education and research for a wider debate not only among social scientists but also among all sections of theIndian society. While I agree with some of the recommendations made by RC, I tend to agree more with some recommendations of the National Knowl-edge Commission (NKC).2 I refer to some of the observations and recommendations of both these bodies and raise a few broad-er issues on social science education and research vis-à-vis education and research in other disciplines.Narrow MandateFirst of all I would like to recognise that these two committees of experts had two entirely different mandates.NKC has before it a wide scope and mandate. Its members are drawn from a wide spectrum of scientists. The RC was given a narrow mandate that seemed to suggest that ICSSR as an institution stays in place, and at best it can be restructured, if necessary. The first three terms of reference for RC dealt with ICCSR. Its fourth and last term of reference stated: “Any other matter related to the conduct and care of social science research”. This term of reference, usually read in conjunction with the earlier ones, does not give the committee the option of doing away with ICSSR. Given this narrow mandate the Vaidyanathan Committee did an excellent job of suggesting a few far-reachingreforms for ICSSR. If one were to examine the effectiveness of ICSSR one must ask the following ques-tion: “How well has ICSSR fulfilled its intended objective of promoting social science research that is useful for develop-ment planning and policy, relative to a status quo of how the course of that research would have been ifICSSR were not there?”This question, however, cannot be answered easily as it requires a counter- factual simulation of how the research in social sciences would have traced itself under the two scenarios, one withICSSR and the other without it. The information we have is only how that research pro-gressed or regressed, with and without ICSSR, but under different conditions pre-vailing under the two situations. Although it is a difficult question, it is an important one begging for an answer. Similar ques-tions can be raised with respect to other such bodies created by the government of India in its initial tryst with the destiny of an independent India striving to promote science, technology, and development at a very rapid pace.The other important question to ask is: After reviewing the contribution made by ICSSR over three decades, and giventhe changing socio-economic scenario, whe-ther there is still a need to haveICSSR? These two questions are quite impor-tant asRC states that the most important achievement ofICSSR has been creating and supporting 27 institutes. Whether that is an achievement in itself or not depends on the answers to the above questions. RC states that its survey of articles published in select social science journals reveals that 40 per cent of them are from scholars working inICSSR institutions and only one-third are from authors from universi-ties. The above statement of RCis in con-junction with the statement by its chair-man, “that the disappointing performance of the council is attributable in part to the sorry state of social science research gen-erally, and to weakness specific to the council. Government and public agencies, which have been the main source of fund-ing independent scholarly research, con-tinue to be sceptical of its value.” One could interpret this to mean that ICSSR could have adversely affected the quantity and quality of social science teaching and research in uni-versities. If this were in fact true, that would also explain partly why theresearch
DISCUSSIONEconomic & Political Weekly EPW April 5, 200869quality atICSSRinstitutions itself has gone down, as they get their research scholars or faculty fromuniversities. Fragmented EducationThe questions I raised are also important because it seems to me that one of the main reasons for some of the concerns and issues raised byRC is that as a result of these institutions the community of scien-tists is fragmented and compartmentalised, separating teaching and research in social sciences on one hand, and segregating social sciences away from other sciences on the other. Such fragmentation has pitched one group of scientists against others in securing funds from the govern-ment through these funding organisations in ways unrelated to the relative produc-tivity of one group of scientists in relation to the others. The resource allocation is left to the bureaucrats rather than the academic community thus eroding autonomy, an issue raised by RC. Such a resource allocation system, divorced from academic achieve-ments measured through the accepted norms of peer review and competition found in universities, can create inefficiencies in our system of higher education. I agree with the following comments made by NKC.We attempted to create stand-alone research institutions, pampered with resources, in the belief that research should be moved out of universities. In the process, we forgot an essential principle. There are synergies between teaching and research that en-rich each other. And it is universities which are the natural home for research. What is more, for universities, research is essential in the pursuit of academic excellence. It is time to reverse what has happened in the past and make universities the hub of re-search once again.I would like to add my own additional and supplemental remarks. The word pamper used byNKC may be read in this context ofICSSR in relative terms and in comparison to the resources made availa-ble to research carried out in universities. The justification for creating IITs, IIMs, andICSSR institutions seems to be a view then prevailing that the universities had organisational structure and bureau-cracy frozen in time and were not suited to bring about a rapid change in the direction of research needed for India’s rapid economic and technological devel-opment. If that were the problem, the solu-tion seems to lie in creating an incentive structure for universities to bring about such changes through special grants for developing centres of excellence within universities than creating new institutions andgiving them a life of their own, independent of universities. These views are based on my experience of working as a teacher-cum-researcherinsciences and social sciences on both sides. I worked as a professor at universities in the US, and within India at anIIT, anIIM, ISI-Bangalore campus, and one of the ICSSR institutions. Universities vs InstitutesWhen I was at the central university, Hyderabad, the science faculty expressed views similar to those ofNKC.3 Some CSIR- supported institutions located in Hyderabad approached the University of Hyderabad for recognising those institu-tions’ senior research staff and their infra-structure facilities for guiding PhD research in those institutions, with the de-gree to be awarded by the University. The sentiment expressed by the faculty then was quite reflective of what NKC said. Their response was on these lines: “When the government pampers them with somuch research funds at the expense of not giving universities the needed researchfunds, why should we give them an advantage that we have and they do not have?”WhenI was teaching there in a social science depart-ment, even to get my researchpapertyped for publication, I had to spend from my pocket and get it done outside the depart-ment, as the department had only one secretary for several productive faculty. Let me move to the other side and com-pare this with my experience at one of the ICSSR institutions, where I was a professor and a member of the board of governors. There were more secretaries per faculty, and in fact some of them did not have enough work as the faculty there, in my opinion, produced less research output. The research fellows, who were later designated as professors, are paid salaries as perUGC norms, like the university faculty. Many of them did not do any teaching nor did they do research, over and above the work done by university faculty, commensurate with more time devoted for research, even after accoun-ting for the time spent on sponsored research projects. In universities the depart-mental promotions are subject to review and scrutiny by academic community of other disciplines. In ICSSR institutions the promotions are based on committees with social scientists alone. I had seen how the concept of merit promotion was used both in the central university in Hyderabad and in the ICSSR institution. Persons with no teaching experience and no peer-reviewed research publications of sufficient stand-ards were promoted to the rank of assis-tant and even associate professor in the ICSSR institution. Such a thing cannot hap-pen in a university, with checks and balan-ces imposed by the faculty of other disci-plines. These checks and balances apply, as ultimately whether one is a science faculty or a social science faculty, he/she draws the same UGC scale of pay. While one cannot compare research in one discipline with that in another, the standards of rigour for peer review are the same across disciplines. Hence a university provides better checks and balances for maintaining quality. There is no doubt that different universi-ties may have different quality standards, but all of them try to maintain the highest possible standards using checks and bal-ances based on peer-review norms. When we haveUGC, which also has inter-university centres, and centres of ex-cellence scheme, what is the need to have Council for Science and Industrial Research (CSIR), All Indian Council of Technical Edu-cation (AICTE), andICSSR? Why cannot re-search funds currently disbursed byCSIR, AICTE, and ICSSR be channelled through UGC to universities that reap forces of syn-ergy between teaching and research and maintain higher quality standards than non-university institutions? When the uni-versities can bring about the desirable fea-tures of exposure to students, and also competition between students and faculty of different disciplines, what is the need to have islands of lower quality institutions? There is no denying the fact that some of the CSIR institutes and ICsSR institutes pro-duce good quality research output. But the point is that such good research would im-prove the quality of education in universi-ties if it takes place there. Alternative StructureI suggest an alternative organisational structure in which whether it is physical, biological or social sciences there can be
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DISCUSSIONEconomic & Political Weekly EPW April 5, 200871institution, and competition between individuals and institutions. Concluding RemarksEducation is a graded and a continuous process. At the stage of entry level degree course the students do not have adequate exposure, nor are they given the option to make the choice of a discipline and the college. The parents make the choice for them. There is very little counselling given to either students or their parents on making this choice. Quite often this choicedepends on physical access, finan-cial means, and degree of competition that exists for various disciplines. Given the limited opportunities provided by the educational institutions and the government, students who choose social science at this stage are not necessarily incompetent, and neither are they of lower levels in merit. But the poor academic en-vironment confronting them eventually turns them out as poor quality social sci-entists for no fault of theirs. Had there been better physical and financial access tothem for pursuing professional and science degree courses, they could have taken to professional courses or science. If they had better social science education at that level, and at subsequent stages, they could become good social scientists. While they are in first degree courses, the students get exposure to the subjects taught and also develop some maturity and independence to make choices further ahead in life. Our education system, at such a crucial stage, is fragmented and each fragmented part is made to float as a separate island of a discipline. Each degree college specia-lises in some discipline and does not pro-vide its students an exposure to other disciplines. This fragmented system also prevents any competition between stu-dents of different disciplines. As the tea-chers in these three-and four-year degree colleges do not have research experience, the teaching and the curriculum become outdated. The situation is made worse by the universities that have facilities to offer such opportunities. They shirk from their responsibilities and do not offer first de-gree courses under one roof. The entry level college students do not get in contact with teachers in universities who subject themselves to academic rigour through research and peer review. This absence of undergraduate teaching at the universities is thus depriving the youngsters a motiva-tion that such better quality teachers can provide. The situation is very different in US and European universities where universities offer undergraduate (or entry level collegiate) education.7 In fact some of the best universities there have very good undergraduate programmes and attract and motivate very good students. That training produces better students and researchers at graduate and postgraduate levels. Thus in my opinion the answer to improving the quality of higher education and research muststartwithincreasing opportunities to undergraduate students and letting the universities offerunder-graduate instruction in all subjects.As science and professional students at the undergraduate level are not exposed to social science as a discipline, we are barring entry into social sciences for such bright students. By isolating the social science students from science and profes-sional students, and offering them low quality instruction, we are not providing opportunities for them to compete with their peers in other disciplines. Students who take social science subjects at this stage are denied opportunities to move on to other disciplines. Science and profes-sional students continue to be science and engineering students, social science stu-dents continue to remain such and the dif-ferences between them are accentuated through isolation, and through a funding mechanism that has its own pecking order preferring one discipline over the other. As per the statistics given byNKC, this level of education accounts for 85 per cent higher education. Using ABC Analysis, maximum impact on higher education, and social science research included, can be brought about by reforming this basic part of our higher education system. NKC is seized with these issues and it is addre-ssing them quite well as I can see from various documents NKC has placed on its web site and my informal discussions with some members. It is for these reasons that NKC made the following recommendations regarding university education:(1) There should be 1,500 universities by 2015 enabling the gross enrolment ratio to reach 15 per cent. There should be 50 national universities, and these national universities should undertake undergra-duate degree programme and the degree should be granted on the basis of complet-ing a requisite number of credits, obtained from different courses. (2) Every student should be required to earn a minimum number of credits in his/her chosen discipline but should have the freedom to earn the rest from courses in other disciplines. It is essential to provide students with choices instead of keeping them captive. I focused on only a few issues that I con-sider to be of great importance. There are several other issues and recommendations of the two committees that seem to either complement or conflict with one another. There is a need for a wider debate on these issues. Notes 1 ‘An Overview’, Economic & Political Weekly, February 2, 2008, pp 21-24. The full report can be accessed from theICSSR web site: http://www.icssr.org/finalreport.pdf. 2 I am referring to its Report to the Nation 2006. This can be accessed from its web site: http://know-ledgecommission.gov.in/reports/report06.asp. 3 One might say that my observations are anecdotal and hence are selective. These are based on what one may call a purposive sample rather than a random sample, but these are unrefutable facts nevertheless. 4 One of the reasons for low quality of research in ICSSR institutions, in my opinion, is that there is very little lateral mobility of researchers between universities and these institutions. Such a merger or integration of ICSSR institutions with universi-ties can resolve this problem. 5 Similarly, there is now a new kind of fragmenta-tion created through specialised universities such as law universities, health universities, and technological universities. The reason forestablish-ing them is the perceived low qualityofuniversi-ties. Let us reverse the trendbystrengtheningthe universities and merging these special universi-ties with the main older universities. 6 This might imply that ICSSR, CSIR, AICTE, etc, should cease to exist for funding research. 7 My son who enrolled as a student for a BS degree course in communication engineering at Duke University had taken courses in subjects other than engineering, developed interest in Public Policy and Law. Ultimately after an MS degree in engineering he did a law degree and became a lawyer. When I was teaching at the School of Man-agement of Arizona State University I had a stu-dent in the MBA class who had his BS degree in aerospace engineering, followed by a dental de-gree. There are several such cases in US. I myself wentto USwith master degreesin mathematicsand statistics but enrolled directly for PhD in econom-ics as I worked as a research assistant for an eco-nomics professor. Such opportunities and expo-sure do not exist for students in India. At the time of my appointment as professor of economics at University of Hyderabad, the then head of the eco-nomics department raised an objection stating that my basic degree was not in economics and hence I was not qualified for professorship in eco-nomics as per the advertisement issued by that university for the post.

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