The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore should be commended for becoming the country’s first to crack the top 100 in world university rankings. Its success should, however, not obscure the very real problems that still affect university education in India. The Times Higher Education (THE) rankings for 2015-16 put IISc at number 99 in a list of the best engineering and technology institutions in the world. Given that IISc and IIT-Delhi also figure in the top-200 list of QS, at least the most prestigious institutions seem getting closer to competing with international counterparts. Yet, these aren’t solely reflective of improved quality. They indicate that, after years of bickering over methodology and criticising a perceived anti-India bias, the country’s premier higher education institutions are now actively working at raising their global ranking. IISc director Anurag Kumar admitted as much, partially attributing his institute’s climb to hiring a consultant who could “send data” to QS and THE.
There are many factors hobbling scientific research in India, not least of which is lack of synergy between public institutions and private industry. The IISc is an exception, being able to attract grants from the likes of Infosys co-founder Kris Gopalakrishnan. Most publicly funded institutions lack the incentive, or the latitude, to tap private resources or leverage alumni to raise funds. The government’s instrumentalist approach to scientific research hasn’t helped; it has insisted engineers and scientists focus on problem-solving and incrementing existing technology, rather than engaging in the sort of moonshots that led to, say, the creation of the internet. As eminent scientist C.N.R. Rao has repeatedly pointed out, the decline in already inadequate funding — India spends only about 0.8-0.9 per cent of GDP on science — doesn’t foster a climate of experimentation.
Rao also rightly blamed private enterprise for not stepping up where the government has failed. Some of the truly groundbreaking inventions of the last half-century came from collaborations between the US government and private partners. Though IISc was originally founded by J.N. Tata, Indian industry, generally, has never tried to establish institutions that train and nurture the best minds to enable scientific advancement. It also routinely underachieves when it comes to its own contributions to R&D. Public institutions like CSIR — and multinationals — file many more patent applications in India than those from India Inc. It’s only when private and public agents show willingness to take risks, together and separately, that research in India will yield more pathbreaking results.