Wednesday, May 28, 2008

We need the best for the brightest

Arun Shourie, Wednesday, September 13, 2006

An inverse snobbery is afoot. We are lectured every other day: “What is needed is universal, free, primary education.” From this comes the unstated inference: “Institutes of higher learning - the IITs, IIMs - are institutions of, and for the elite. They must be bent to serve the poor, suffering, excluded backwards.”

No one can deny that we must spread primary education at the fastest pace possible. That China has achieved near universal literacy and just about 60 per cent of us are literate - and that too only on our definition of “literacy”, that is that a person is able to sign his name - must account for some of the difference between China and India today. Nor does one need much argumentation to see that we must wholly reorient our school education: it consists almost entirely of imparting information, and then trapping the student in the exams into revealing what he does not know; when she can get the information at the click of a mouse, of what significance is it that she has or hasn’t memorised the date of the Battle of Plassey? Contrast what our NCERT textbooks’ controversies, with the report in the International Herald Tribune the other day [1 September, 2006] about the textbook that has been put out in China’s Shanghai region: Bill Gates and JP Morgan get prominence while Mao is mentioned in just one sentence - it explains that when flags are flown at half-mast when a person like Mao dies. That’s it.

Nor can anyone dispute that one of the things we must expand is vocational education. Seventy per cent of those who graduate have degrees in Arts. One, they don’t want to do the sorts of jobs that are available. Two, employers have little use for them. Third, you can’t find a plumber¿ Krishan Khanna, an alumni of IIT, Kharagpur, an evangelist for vocational education, points to the telling contrast: India has about 5,000 ITIs (under the Ministry of Labour) and about 7,000 vocational schools (under the Ministry of HRD; and never the twain shall meet!); China has about 500,000 secondary vocational schools.

There can be no dispute about the need for expanding primary and vocational education, nor for the need to reorient them totally. It is the inference that is drawn, “IITs and IIMs are for the elite, higher education is for the elite,” which is errant nonsense. Higher learning, and the Research and Development work that can follow only from such higher learning are just as necessary. Not “Either/or”, as Vinoba would say, but “And also”.

The growing gap

We often pride and comfort ourselves with the observation, “We have one of the largest pools in the world of scientific and technical manpower.” But clearly, the numbers, large in absolute terms, are not large enough: look at the way salaries, even starting salaries have shot up in the last five years in IT, ITES and similar professions: they speak to a grave shortage.

Even if the absolute figures of engineers and scientists are taken at face value, numbers by themselves don’t go far. While celebrating the impressive jump in enrollment in higher education - the 1991 Census had counted 20 million with graduate and higher degrees, and 53 million by 2003; while pointing out that enrollment in science and engineering courses had risen faster than overall enrollment: 2.7 times in science and 10 times in engineering; the NCAER’s India Science Report, sets out some telling figures that give pause. Almost 30 per cent of those who have finished 12th class or higher in science are not working in jobs requiring scientific learning: they are either unemployed or are housewives. The figure is 20 per cent in the case of science graduates, and 14 per cent for those with Ph. Ds in science. Of science graduates, only a third are employed in “professional and technical” assignments. And on the other side, many employed in science-centered jobs turn out not to be sufficiently qualified. Of post-graduates who are unemployed, two-thirds have studied science. Of Diploma Holders who are unemployed, 53 per cent belong to the science stream¿

But sub-optimal utilisation is just one aspect. A presentation of Dr. R.A. Mashelkar points me to two studies and the indices of output they sketch - Science and Engineering Indicators, 2006, Volumes I and II, National Science Board, Arlington, VA; and R.N. Kostoff, D. Johnson, C.A. Bowles and S. Dodbele, Assessment of India’s Research Literature, Office of Naval Research and Northrop Grumman, Arlington, VA. These show an alarming slippage - of effort, of attainments, of standards.

Consider one index: the number of papers that are being published by China and India in high-calibre journals - ones that are accessed by Science Citation Index and Social Science Citation Index. The Kostoff study indicates that in 1980, papers from China were one-fifteenth of the papers produced from India. In 1995, they became about equal. By 2005, papers originating from China had become almost thrice those from India. Between these dates, papers from India increased by 2.5, China’s ten times. Kostoff and his associates point out that the scientific output of South Korea already exceeds that of India, and that of Taiwan and Brazil is catching up fast.

As part of the dramatic growth in Chinese research output may be caused by the multiplication of journals, Kostoff and his colleagues turned to three high Impact Factor journals - the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the Physical Review Letters, and the Journal of Biological Chemistry. “India had noticeably more publications in the three journals prior to about 2000,” they note. In 2005, their figures show, Chinese researchers published more than five times the number of papers than Indian researchers in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Mashelkar points to his own field, Chemistry: every eighth paper published in Chemical Abstracts is now from China; every fortieth Indian.

Nor is this accidental. The US National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators shows the focused effort behind China’s leap. In 1991, China was spending around $ 12 billion on R&D, $ 85 by 2003. Our total R&D expenditure is around $ five billion. Over this period, China’s academic R&D expenditure increased ten-fold. “China’s R&D expenditures are rapidly approaching those of Japan, the second largest R&D performing nation,” the study notes. “OECD data show China’s investment at 17% of Japan’s in 1991 but at 74% of Japan’s in 2003.” The National Science Board’s analysts observe, “such a rapid advance on the leading R&D performing countries and regions would still be unprecedented in recent history.”

This emphasis on R&D is bearing results. Focusing on five high-technology industries, Science and Engineering Indicators shows that “In 2003 China had surpassed Japan as a producer of high-technology goods¿ China’s rise from a mere $ 23 billion in 1990 to $ 224 billion in 2003, remarkable both for its speed and consistency, moved its share of world high-technology exports to 12%, beyond Japan’s share,” which by then had been pushed down to 9%. Not just papers by Chinese researchers are now such an important proportion of high-impact publications, their work is being translated into products. And many of these high-technology industries add sinews to military prowess.

This effort of China has only accelerated with each passing year. While we are on a course to undermine the few islands of excellence that have survived, the IITs and IIMs, China has set itself a target at the opposite end: one hundred world-class universities. Mashelkar points out how it has already begun pursuing this target. It is giving each of its ten leading universities $ 125 million - around Rs. 550 crore each. The two foremost universities - Beijing and Tsinghua - are being given $ 225 million each - around Rs. 1,200 crore each! In the second phase, China has decided to allocate similar grants to thirty more universities.

I leave the task of collecting comparable figures about our universities as an exercise for you, dear reader!

(To be concluded)

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