Back to the classroomhttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/back-to-the-classroom-2/

Back to the classroom

Why research and teaching must mingle in our public universities.

Binay Panda

Why research and teaching must mingle in our public universities.

The gradual decay in the standards of India’s public universities is a matter of grave concern. Universities,where teaching and scientific research are intermingled,are the places to instil the spirit of inquiry in young minds. Post economic liberalisation,however,there has been a steady rise in the number of research institutes,some of which have become world-class institutions over time. This is a welcome development. But this growing divergence — research in the institutes and teaching in the universities — is worrying. The fact that research institutes are growing at a time when the quality of our universities is declining is a matter of concern.

When a young scientist gets ready to apply for an independent position after years of research abroad,she aims for the research institutes and not the universities. Why? Most scientists do not want to be burdened with teaching,preferring to concentrate on research instead. This,as well as the lack of a dynamic academic environment,drives young scientists away from the public university system.

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It would appear that teaching consumes most of a young researcher’s time in a university — and it does,at least in the beginning. In order to be productive,and not just in terms of research papers published,or innovative,and not just in terms of new discoveries,one needs to be in a participatory system that fosters interaction,argument,sharing and growth among different disciplines. Knowledge creation and excellence in teaching should be as important in the life of a scientist as scholarly publishing. Students of science have much to learn from students of philosophy,anthropology,music and the fine arts. Young students,particularly undergraduates,are an integral part of any knowledge network in universities,and one cannot flourish scientifically without this vibrant constituent. It is during the high school and undergraduate years that new concepts and the ability to question take deep roots. So it is shortsighted to separate undergraduate teaching from research.

One of Princeton’s eminent physicists,John Archibald Wheeler,was once asked why universities have students. He replied that “universities have students to teach professors”. The fact that Amartya Sen passes every book that he writes to his students to get their comments before the the book is published is testament to the fact that students can and do contribute to the scholarly excellence of teachers. They are one group of critics that every good teacher cherishes. Eminent physicist and educator D.S. Kothari once said that education that does not value and promote excellence is,in the end,a waste of effort and resources. Excellence,according to Kothari,is spread out over a wide range of interests and activities — studies,research,teaching,technical skills,the promotion of social and moral values and sports,among others. This excellence can only be achieved in a university system or a system which fosters academic excellence in a multidisciplinary learning environment,where every teacher gets the chance to interact with young students.

To rejuvenate higher education,the ministry of human resources development constituted the Yashpal committee. In 2008,this committee came up with a set of recommendations. This is what the Yashpal committee report had to say about teaching and research: “The best academics,scientists and engineers should teach undergraduate classes. Teaching and research have to be inseparable,because the task of the university is not only to impart knowledge to young people but also to give them opportunities to create their own knowledge. It should be necessary for all research bodies to connect with universities in their vicinity and create teaching opportunities for their researchers and for all universities to be teaching and research universities. This disjoint between teaching and research has led to a situation in which,on the one hand,most of the universities have been reduced to the status of centres that teach and examine masses and,on the other hand,more and more elite research bodies are being created where researchers have absolutely no occasion to engage with young minds”.

To address this disjunct between research and education,the government opened five Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs),and one related National Institute of Science Education and Research (NISER),a few years ago. This was a welcome first step,but it does not strengthen our public university system.

The writer is with the Bio-IT Centre,Ganit Labs,Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology,Bangalore.