In India, where significant segments of the population have faced long-standing discrimination, the call for educational reservations at all levels is not only understandable but also perhaps justifiable. Recent reports in the news drawing attention to the incorporation of reservations for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Castes, and for those suffering disability in the doctoral programmes at the IIMs hold considerable relevance. IIM Ahmedabad, specifically, has announced its intention to enact this policy by the year 2025. It is worth mentioning that IIMs have consistently applied analogous reservation policies for their master’s programmes.
India’s standing in global research and development endeavours as well as PhD programmes remain, at best, unimpressive.
India lags in R&D spending globally, with just 26 of our companies among the top 2,500 R&D spenders. We rank 40th on the World Innovation Index. Our R&D spend, at 0.65% of GDP, is one of the lowest among major countries and constitutes only about 10% of China’s spending.
India, by some estimates, annually generates about 24,000 PhD recipients, which places it in the fourth position worldwide.
While this sounds impressive, when juxtaposed with a vast population of 140 crore and over 1,000 universities, this yields a modest figure of around 170 PhDs annually per one crore individuals. This figure starkly contrasts with nations such as the United Kingdom and Portugal, which are themselves not at the top of the table in Western Europe, which produce an impressive 3,700 and 1,800 PhDs per crore, respectively.
While data from China is not conclusive, conservative estimates suggest that China surpasses India by a substantial margin, roughly 6-8 times more per PhDs than India produces. Strikingly, diminutive nations like Estonia, Latvia, and Slovenia thrive in this aspect, with Slovenia emerging as the world leader, boasting an astonishing 5% of its population holding PhD degrees. India’s per capita performance in PhD production notably lags, even when compared to other Asian nations.
The quality of PhD programmes in India, too, remains largely unaddressed. A UGC committee on "Enhancing Research Quality in Indian Universities/Colleges," established in July 2019, notes the following:
“There is a consensus that barring a few exceptions, the overall quality of university and college-level research in India is far from satisfactory. Indeed, in many institutions, the quality of research is alarmingly poor. In (a) large number of cases, these do not conform to international standards and do not make significant contributions to theoretical or applied aspects of a given discipline…”
The committee has been candid in its assessments. For instance, I recall evaluating a post-doctoral thesis for a D.Sc degree, forwarded to me for evaluation by the Vice Chancellor of a prominent Indian university a few years ago. The Head of the Department, whose dissertation it was, had reportedly conducted interviews with a couple of thousand entrepreneurs. Based on the demographic composition of the respondents — around 73% Hindus, 17% Muslims, and about 7% Christians, with the remaining 3% representing various other groups (these figures are from my recollection and may not be precise but serve as indicative) — the researcher concluded that this data was evidence enough that Hindus were the more entrepreneurial segment of the Indian population! There were other significant bloomers in that dissertation, but we need not delve further. Not only did I reject the dissertation, but also recommended the individual’s dismissal. That marked the end of any further dissertations I received from that university.
The central message, as underscored by the UGC committee, revolves around the disconcerting condition of PhD programmes in India. Currently, save for renowned institutions like IITs, IIMs, and IISc, and a few others, a notable proportion of university PhD dissertations conspicuously lack the requisite academic rigour. The proliferation of online platforms, unscrupulous actors and, lately, the influence of artificial intelligence, have further exacerbated this issue, contributing to the continued decline in the quality of PhD programmes.
Urgent and sweeping reforms are required for the advancement of Indian higher education and its PhD programmes. These reforms should encompass the augmentation of faculty expertise, the promotion of research reviewed by peers and alumni, the nurturing of collaborative networks, the assurance of data integrity, the elevation of accreditation standards, the enhancement of research infrastructure, the provision of robust financial support, the fostering of academia-industry alliances, and the facilitation of interdisciplinary engagements.
To achieve this, an effective strategy must aim to bolster the existing strengths within our system, commencing with the institutions of excellence like IIMs and IITs. These institutions can serve as trailblazers, helping enhance the overall academic landscape in the country. This, in turn, can facilitate the traditional universities, which are in dire need of substantial improvements in their PhD programmes, in adopting and adapting the best practices pioneered by the former.
Further, the UGC committee noted that “a large number of students taking admission to PhD programmes carry with them accumulated deficit of disciplinary knowledge and research methodology and often even lack communication skills and linguistic competence.”
Upon careful consideration, it becomes clear that this accumulated deficit is likely to be particularly pronounced within the socio-economically disadvantaged segments of the population, who typically face adversity during their formative years of schooling as well as throughout their undergraduate education.
The quality of education at all levels in India remains subpar. If we are to truly uplift the socio-economically disadvantaged sections, working on mission mode to improve quality of education at school and college levels should be the foremost priority. This entails not only improving the academic regulatory framework and its strict implementation, but also raising the standard of education imparted by government schools and colleges on a broader scale. This will naturally enhance the quality of the input of students from across the board into doctoral programmes. But compelling higher rated institutions like IIMs and IITs to admit underprepared students from socio-economically weaker backgrounds into their PhD programmes will not correct the ills of a fundamentally flawed system, and may merely push this burning concern under the carpet.
(The writer was formerly a professor at IIM, Ahmedabad)
(Published 09 November 2023, 23:08 IST)