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The blind leading

[ MONDAY, MARCH 03, 2003 01:16:49 AM ]

THE demand for technical education has grown exponentially in India, fuelled largely by the boom in knowledge-based industries. This increased demand is currently being serviced largely by private colleges: of the over 1,500 engineering colleges, probably less than 10% are government-sponsored.

Though private colleges are clearly required to meet the swelling demand, these colleges have, by-and-large, not provided quality education. Most are teaching-only places, with no participation in any R&D activity. Consequently, the faculty they hire is of lower educational qualifications – mostly graduates with a few postgraduates.

For any education, if the teacher has to teach some material, then he must know much more than the material to be actually taught. Only when one possesses advanced knowledge about a subject does one understand the overall perspective and the role of basic knowledge of that subject. So, for example, a teacher who has learned advanced mechanics can appreciate Newtonian physics a lot better and can consequently teach it better. Similarly, a teacher who teaches arithmetic can understand it better and consequently explain it better if he understands algebra.

In technical education, the need for in-depth knowledge is even more acute. In engineering, the relationship to practice is what gives true understanding of tools, techniques and concepts taught in a course. Without this understanding the education will be highly conceptual and unsuitable for training engineers. And, to understand this relationship to practice, the teacher must possess a higher and deeper level of knowledge of the subject. Furthermore, in most engineering disciplines, knowledge is dynamic and rapidly changing. In this scenario, to provide any decent instruction, the teacher must constantly update his knowledge and lectures. Constantly updating technical knowledge is hard, and if a person is not a specialist in the area, it becomes almost impossible.

If the teacher is a researcher in the area in which he teaches, these needs can be satisfied. A researcher, in order to produce new knowledge (the basic objective of research), and get his work accepted will require review by other researchers in the area – this ensures that the researcher has current knowledge of the field and that his understanding is proper. In other words, doing research improves the understanding of the subject as well as makes the knowledge current. This occurs, even if the research output itself is not of top-quality. That is, the process of doing research provides these benefits, which are independent of the actual output of the R&D activity.

Another key factor why engaging in research helps education is related to the quality of manpower. The best quality people always require freedom and opportunities to innovate – both not possible within a teaching-only institution, but satisfied by the research activity. Engaging in research is a very strong motivating factor for good people across the world to join academics. It is safe to say that it is almost impossible to get good people to come as faculty in teaching-only places, and if an institute wants bright and competent people as faculty, it must support and encourage R&D.

It is due to these reasons that most US universities, as well as most universities in Europe, Australia and Japan, require a Ph.D. as the minimum qualification for a faculty position, even if the university is primarily a teaching university. Furthermore, these universities actively encourage their faculty to participate in R&D and most evaluation procedures for faculty attach heavy weight to R&D activity.

This high correlation between R&D and teaching can be seen in the rankings and perceptions of various US universities. Most of the highest ranking schools for undergraduate education are also the highest ranking research schools. These are places like MIT, Berkely, Illinois, Princeton, Cornell and CMU among others. In India too, the places that excel in education are also the best in R&D — like the IITs, IISc, NITs/RECs. Even within the private colleges/universities, the ones now regarded as good education places are those where the faculty is made up largely of Ph.Ds and where R&D is an important function of a faculty member (eg BITS, Manipal, IIITs, …)

This clearly implies that if the level of education of our colleges is to be improved, an impetus must be given to get some degree of R&D going in colleges and universities engaged in technical and science education. Improving syllabi, or doing short-term teachers training programmes, will only have an effect for a short time.

Towards this end, it will be beneficial if a portion of government funds for education are disbursed as grants for furthering R&D. All colleges should be allowed to complete for these funds so there is an incentive even in private institutions to engage in research. To support R&D, colleges and universities engaged in technical education will have to account for the effort faculty puts into R&D activities. R&D can only be encouraged by keeping reasonable teaching loads – the level of teaching load being determined by the level of R&D activity the university/college is able/interested/willing to engage in.

Unless R&D is made an integral part of colleges and universities, the education from these places will remain outdated and poor. To improve the quality of education, the focus should be partly shifted from improving education and syllabi in these places to improving the R&D culture of these places. And to facilitate this, a big impetus is needed for production of PhDs, such that more Ph.Ds are available for faculty posts.

The author is a professor of computer science in IIT Kanpur

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