Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

How to reform higher academia for India's economic and technological development

Implementing reforms to cleanse higher academia will be challenging due to resistance from entrenched interests, but all these changes are essential to initiate fundamental improvements

Published: Jun 5, 2024 11:03:11 AM IST
Updated: Jun 5, 2024 11:41:40 AM IST

How to reform higher academia for India's economic and technological developmentA robust research and education ecosystem is essential for creating valuable human capital and national advancement. Image: Getty Images

India's progress towards a developed economy is impeded by a higher academic research ecosystem marred by poor quality, mismanagement, and nepotism. This jeopardises India's technological progress, economic competitiveness, and intellectual achievements. A robust research and education ecosystem is essential for creating valuable human capital and national advancement. Without significant reforms in higher academia, India's development goals may remain unfulfilled.

Central to this issue is the calibre of research faculty within universities. Securing a permanent academic position is easy, but dismissing underperforming faculty is not. Excellent faculty members are few and outnumbered by dominating mediocrity and incompetence. Recent reform attempts, though positive, need to be swifter and deeper to counter-pressing issues. How can the government address this issue urgently? I suggest a four-pronged approach.

First, we need to bolster our doctoral programmes, which is vital for our future research landscape. India's draft UGC Regulations (2022) mandate a PhD duration of two to six years, extendable, not counting coursework—unlike the typical five to six years in the US, coursework included. In India, a master's degree is required before a PhD; in the US, it is often part of the PhD programme. Consequently, many Indian PhD candidates divert their focus to non-academic pursuits, such as politics or job exams, at the cost of serious research. These students drain resources meant for genuine research. Studies indicate that much of the research for doctoral degrees in India is plagiarised or of low quality.

The problem can be solved easily and quickly through Artificial Intelligence (AI). Educational institutions must digitise PhD theses from the past three decades or more, allowing AI to identify plagiarism and its sources. Instances of repeated plagiarism under the same faculty advisor may indicate incompetence. Such faculty and their students should be targeted for actions like retraining or termination based on the severity of misconduct and ethical standards. The UGC's 2018 regulations and penalties for plagiarism are insufficient. Problems persist because influential faculty with fraudulent pasts resist change and may benefit from maintaining the status quo. Therefore, historical reviews are essential to cleanse the system from its roots thoroughly.

Purging harmful elements in the system is one priority. Second, equally important, is getting the right people into the system to sustain the reforms. To match global standards, high-performing faculty should receive competitive salaries, perks, research support, and benefits like those in developed countries, funded by savings from removing incompetent staff. Given the scarcity and global competition for research faculty, offering world-class working conditions is essential to attract top talent. Academic merit should be judged primarily by publications in top-tier global journals. Experienced, high-quality faculty should lead institutions and uphold high standards. As seen in leading global research institutions, it is preferable to leave positions vacant rather than fill them with subpar faculty. A smaller number of high-quality researchers would likely be more impactful than a large number of incompetent researchers. Teaching needs can be addressed by other faculty categories under temporary contracts.

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Third, high-quality research faculty require protection from undue influence to create new knowledge crucial for civilisational progress, regardless of its link to immediate returns. Therefore, implementing a "tenure system" like the US model should be considered. Despite criticism, it has been important in making the US a global higher education and research leader. Compared to India's probation system, the tenure track is much longer, typically eight to ten years in business schools. Achieving tenure requires a robust publication record in top-tier journals and proven global performance. Rigorous evaluations, including confidential recommendations from distinguished faculty, are part of the tenure process before granting tenure or permanent jobs. Despite obtaining PhDs from prestigious universities, many scholars fail to secure tenure and must restart elsewhere. Tenure offers essential protection and academic freedom for integrity in research agendas. While abuses exist, the system ensures a dedicated cadre of faculty contributing to research and institution management, fostering an open culture of research and new knowledge creation for society.

Finally, to enhance the rigour and effectiveness of our doctoral programmes, student funding should be contingent on progress at each stage of the programme. A cap of 5-6 years should be set for institutional funding, covering coursework, thesis completion, and related activities. Suppose students fail to meet degree requirements within this timeframe. In that case, they should be expelled from the programme unless there is compelling evidence of their commitment to research, which is crucial for evaluating such cases.

Implementing reforms to cleanse higher academia will be challenging due to resistance from entrenched interests, but all these changes are essential to initiate fundamental improvements. Without such decisive actions, any organic changes could take decades, hindered by generations of substandard faculty with permanent university positions. Higher academia must be a torchbearer of higher ethical standards. We must not allow it to rot.

Siddharth S Singh. The writer is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the Indian School of Business, and the founding director of ISB's doctoral programme. The views are his own. He can be reached at Siddharth_singh@isb.edu.

[This article has been reproduced with permission from the Indian School of Business, India]