By Bikash Sarmah
As things stand in the display put out by the QS World University Rankings 2018, India’s show is not just a pathetic commentary on its state of higher education affairs despite all the brouhaha of a knowledge society in the making, but also reflective of the lessons that we are refusing to learn despite the best suggestions around. The disheartening, rather shameful, fact of life is that no Indian university/institute is even among the top 150 universities in the world. The QS list is topped by MIT, followed by Stanford University, Harvard University, Caltech and the University of Cambridge in the next four slots. Five US universities are in the top 10 list. Europe, with its likes of Oxford, Edinburgh, ETH Zurich, Imperial and Warwick, enjoys its usual share. But what is remarkable is the happening of higher education in our own neighbourhood – Chi, Singapore and Hong Kong. Chi boasts of some prized ones in the top 50 list, and yet we in India talk of rivalling Chi in the economic domain without realizing – or rather trying to realize – that without quality higher education and smart human resources generated by world-class universities on our own soil, we ought not to even imagine of a situation with the two countries on an equal footing. The Chinese institutions in the top 50 list include the famed Tsinghua University of Taiwan and Peking University, ranked 25 and 38 respectively. Other Chinese mes in the top 100 list include familiar ones such as Shanghai Jiao Tong University, University of Science and Technology of Chi, and Zhejiang University.
Then, look at Singapore: nyang Technological University and Singapore tiol University are ranked 11 and 15 respectively. Even the small territory of Hong Kong boasts of two in the top 50 list – University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Remember, we are not talking of any historically advanced Western tions and their hallowed institutions such as Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard – mes which are too familiar to introduce anyone to. We are talking of education marvels being worked out by countries like Chi, which evolved into an independent tion-state after a long civil war as the People’s Republic of Chi under Mao Zedong’s leadership three years after India attained independence, and tiny populations such as Singapore and Hong Kong as compared to us, the world’s second most populous tion.
We, nonetheless, are never tired of making a song and dance about our ‘prestigious’ IITs and IIMs. We would also point to research hubs like the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Bombay. And we would definitely sing paeans of glory for the ilk of JNU, BHU and the University of Delhi, apart from pointing to such big mes as Presidency College (now Presidency University), Kolkata. But the global ignominy we suffer is that none of these could make it to the top 150 list, let alone the top 50 list, even this time around. Something must be terribly wrong somewhere that our universities are in no position at all to compete even with the ones shining right next door. At least the Chinese higher education stride in recent years must have jolted us to some solid action resulting from a meaningful and sustaible roadmap. It was not for nothing, it will be recalled, that the Manmohan Singh government had set up the country’s first tiol Knowledge Commission (NKC) comprising intertiolly acclaimed intellectuals from different disciplines, but it will also be recalled how one of its most illustrious members, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, then heading the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, was compelled to resign following sharp differences with the typical governmental thinking of the time – sheer stereotype that intellectuals rebels like Prof Mehta ridiculed and wanted to replace with a paradigm in sync with the changing times. The NKC, however, did recommend a few radical steps for a paradigm shift in our higher education discourse. But that was not to be. Our self-styled scholars in the vast political and bureaucratic universe would have their own ‘enlightened’ ways and means. And here we are, shamed by what has been thrown at our face by the QS Rankings. But do we even feel the impact and our responsibility as a tion said to be on an irreversible march towards scientific and economic stardom?
Here, nonetheless, I shall restrict to the Northeast (NE) India situation as the larger tiol picture will require the whole page. When the NE higher education scerio is harped on, one college that comes to mind is Cotton College, Guwahati – now in its Cotton University avatar. It has had to its credit a galaxy of people who have held decorated positions in public life and who have contributed immensely to the development of the region, with some mes in the tiol and intertiol reckoning too. I stand as a proud student of this college where I learnt the intricacies and nuances of mathematical sciences – both pure and applied, as well as its philosophical dimension – as I majored in the subject during my graduation years under the guidance of some of the finest mathematical minds of the region at that time. However, even during those years when some exceptiol students would pursue mathematics for the sheer love of the subject and not merely to shop in the job market, and when mathematical pursuit – said to be the foundation of any solid scientific and technological architecture of knowledge and its application in life – was considered by them a philosophy in itself, such as what goes as “knowledge for knowledge’s sake”, this supreme subject was not discussed in a way as it should be, such as it happens in world-class hubs of mathematical studies and research as Princeton University, for instance. At Princeton and others of its ilk, even the pure aspects of mathematics are debated upon from both the immediate and long-term applications points of view. No wonder, in many world-class universities, one sees a craze for disciplines like Biomechanics, Mathematical Biology and Fincial Mathematics. For instance, in the domain of applied mathematics, one can think of pursuing Quantum Mechanics even as in our universities this belongs to the domain of pure physics. True, Relativity (Einstein’s theory) was taught as a special paper in applied mathematics during my years at Gauhati University (1998-2000), in which I have had the privilege of specializing along with Fluid Dymics – apparently subjects strictly restricted to physics, but not really so because in essence mathematics and physics are two sides of the same coin and the same pursuit, which is the quest for understanding the world about us and making the best of what is available and what can further be generated in the domain of knowledge.
The argument here is that the purest of all sciences, which mathematics really is, can be discussed, and not merely taught and learnt in a stereotypical, windows-and-doors-closed paradigm, so that other disciplines, notably economics (which many of us still believe is a humanities discipline, and not a science one), can be brought in to the domain of mathematical pursuits; indeed, econometrics is one such interesting area. We can then think of bringing political science in as well – in psephology, which is the statistical study of elections and trends in voting, now used widely in exit polls we are so familiar with. This entails sound knowledge of applied statistics, which, again, is applied mathematics, which essentially, again, is nothing but the application of ideas that are generated in the realm of pure or abstract mathematics. Therefore, look at the synergy – between mathematics per se and its enhancement to a broader framework encompassing areas as varied as stock market randomness and elections/voting trends alysis. We can then also think of mathematical modelling and game theory. In fact there have been instances of game theorists as a blend of economists and mathematicians working in tandem and bagging Nobels in economics, such as when they study market behaviour or people’s fincial behaviour/orientations both in capitalist and socialist/communist systems.
How about, therefore, Cotton University and others who have the potential to prove their mettle, such as NEHU, Shillong, or for that matter Tezpur University, breaking some new ground by prioritizing key research areas that bear the potential to reshape the NE knowledge cosmos? Our universities – at least the potential ones in this region – cannot afford to be mere teaching-learning enterprises or degree-manufacturing factories whose human resource generation quotient in the true sense is only a subject of intertiol scorn when mes as the ones that come in the top 100 QS list are invoked. We cannot afford to remain so and stagte if we are serious about meaningful higher education in the region. The good news is that there is no dearth of talent here, but the bad news is that we seem not to be working on out-of-box ideas for creativity or innovation both in our teaching-learning methodologies and research enterprises. Our university teachers shy away from talking of patents, with a vast majority of them awaiting merely some grand pay package commission announcement and higher pension benefits. This is not what universities are. Never. They are idea machines in a constant state of intellectual evolution. It is time, therefore, we compared our ‘prestigiousness’ (to coin this word rather badly) to what is being churned in the likes of Stanford, Harvard and Cambridge, or even in the likes of Tsinghua University nearer home where one can witness radical tutorial systems within the ambit of the university’s extra formal outreach with a professor sitting specially with five-six students round a table and discussing the disciplines concerned out of the box for some radical/ revolutiory ideas to come up for implementation and development of their societies.
The bottom line is simple: One just does not understand why it cannot happen in NE India even as there is a great possibility of this happening right away, provided, of course, there is also the right higher education roadmap in the minds of our political executives and their wise advisors in the vast bureaucracy.
(Bikash Sarmah is a strategic affairs jourlist with focus on Chi, Northeast India and Southeast Asia, and may be reached at email@example.com)