Soul searching as university-led research lags

Environment Minister Jayaram Ramesh, an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay, sparked controversy last year when he said the elite government-funded institutes of technology and of management were excellent only because of the quality of students, not the quality of research or faculty.

While academics came down both for and against the minister’s statement, the ensuing debate highlighted growing concern over the lack of research and innovation in India’s higher education institutions, particularly compared to China, where research has been growing rapidly.

In January, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared, at the Indian Science Congress in the city of Bhubaneswar, that he wanted to increase spending on R&D to 2% of gross domestic product by 2017, saying China was ahead in research.

India currently spends 0.9% of GDP on research, compared to 2.7% in the United States and a target of 1.5% set by China. However, only 4% of India’s total R&D funding goes to universities, compared to 10% in China and 17% in the US.

While the bulk of India's research funding continues to flow from the government, public funding as a proportion of total R&D expenditure fell from over 80% in 1990-91 to 66% by 2007-08. Over the same period, research investment by business rose from about 14% to around 30%.

Divide between universities and research centres

The divide between universities and specialised research institutions, which compete for government funding, is one of the reasons for higher education’s low research output, according to Professor Yash Pal, pro-vice chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Most of the government’s meagre research funding goes to research institutions rather than universities – with just 10% of the total public research budget spent at higher education institutions.

“Today most Indian universities have been reduced to centres that teach and examine the masses. On the other hand, India is creating more elite research bodies, where researchers have absolutely no occasion to engage with young minds,” said Yash Pal, adding that teaching and research should go together in universities.

The problem is not just in science and technology.

The report, Arts and Humanities Research Mapping, India, prepared for Research Councils UK in 2010, stated that “the centres of high quality research in the arts, humanities and social sciences in India are overwhelmingly the autonomous institutions (set up by the councils or by independent philanthropies) and in rare instances, the universities, both old and new”.

Skewed towards undergraduates

According to University Grants Commission figures for 2004-05, almost 90% of India’s university students were enrolled at the undergraduate level, around 9.42% at postgraduate level and only 0.64% for research degrees.

One reason for the lack of research students at universities is a bias towards teaching undergraduates, and universities do little to tempt students to take up research careers.

Some universities, however, are beginning to encourage undergraduates to consider research from their first year of study.

IIT Delhi invites students to spend the summer break researching a subject of their choice. Delhi University has tied up with major research labs in India such as the National Physical Laboratory and the Institute of Nuclear Medicine and Allied Sciences.

“Undergraduate science students should be exposed to research centres early in their academic career. The tie-ups will ensure that selected students attend summer workshops, lectures by scientists and work alongside them in laboratories,” said Deepak Pental, former vice-chancellor of Delhi University and the brain behind the collaborations.

Nonetheless, India’s 15 IITs together produce just 1,000 PhDs a year, compared to 7,000 PhDs delivered by top Chinese institutions, according to the government’s 2011 blueprint for making IITs better and more relevant in the future.

China rising

With China’s universities beginning to rise up global university rankings, thanks to increased research investment and rising publications – a major component of international rankings – the poor research performance of India’s institutions has become an embarrassment.

The total number of published papers in business, management and accounting in the 10 years to 2007 was just 5,590 in India compared to 15,404 in China, a 2009 analysis showed.

According to Gangan Prathap, director of the CSIR National Institute of Science Communication and Information resources in New Delhi, in a study published in the journal Current Science in March, India needs to scale up its higher education system “by a factor of three” in terms of productivity and research output in order to match China.

Among India’s science and technology institutions, the five oldest IITs – in Delhi, Bombay, Madras, Kanpur and Kharagpur – have the highest average citations for published research papers after the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, according to the 2009 analysis by Prathap and BM Gupta of the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies.

Constraints on research grants

Academics and researchers continue to claim that lack of funding and inflexibility of grant conditions reduce the attractiveness of research careers.

According to Pankaj Jalote, director of the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology in Delhi, the single biggest factor that motivates faculty in the US to compete vigorously for research grants is the provision of a 'summer salary' in research grants.

“The yearly compensation of faculty in the US is for nine months, allowing faculty to earn up to three months' salary from research projects. This creates a huge incentive for faculty to get grants, and then to deliver the research output promised in order to secure grants in future,” said Jalote.

Meanwhile, Indian research grants also include only 15% to 20% for university overheads compared to 50% of the total grant in the US. “In many cases the host university [in India] ends up spending considerably more than the overhead it gets,” said Professor M Balakrishnan, deputy director of IIT Delhi.

In addition, Indian research grants can be inflexible, often with restrictions or bureaucratic obstacles on international travel. “The best conferences are held abroad and, in many fields, a critical mass does not even exist to support high-quality national conferences,” Jalote said.

Even in IITs academics prefer private funding agencies due to their flexibility, he added.

Changing landscape

Many institutions are taking steps to reduce their dependence on government funds, to improve flexibility.

"Although our research is funded predominantly by the government, funds from industry are growing much faster and we are focusing on that. We want to have a broader linkage with industry," said Professor Rangan Banerjee, dean of R&D at IIT Bombay.

Just 220 million rupees (US$4 million) of IIT Bombay's 1.8 billion rupee (US$32.6 million) research fund in 2011 came from the private sector.

Industry is pitching in with support for setting up research laboratories, and collaborative projects between faculty and students, and getting research projects sponsored. IIT Kharagpur attracted 1.2 billion rupees (US$21.7 million) in funding from a leading corporation to carry out advanced research in power technology.

Notably, a 50 billion rupee (close to US$1 billion) Indian corporate R&D fund, along the lines of the National Science Foundation in the US, has been recommended by the NR Narayana Murthy Committee on Corporate Sector Participation in Higher Education. The committee submitted its report to the Education Ministry in New Delhi on 8 May.

Singh’s promise to double R&D spending as a proportion of GDP has been met with some scepticism, as similar targets have been set in the past.

Until the government delivers on its promise, universities and research councils will need to tap corporate funding to strengthen research and development in higher education.