A major lacuna in our education and research institutions
 Source : News Bharati English  Date : 17-Apr-2017

The Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru

On March 07, 2017 The Times Higher Education Ratings declared a list of 200 top world ranking universities and no Indian university figured in that list. However, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) at Bengaluru was rated 8th in a separate list of small universities. Various national news dailies carried this news in their front page.

In 2015 also in a worldwide survey IISc made it to a list of top 100 engineering universities and in 2016 figured among top 30 Asian universities. No other Indian institution was mentioned in these surveys.

In an editorial comment the Indian Express of March 10, 2017 attributes this consistent performance to high teacher-student ratio of IISc; the editorial offers no explanation for the consistently embarrassing performance of all other Indian institutions.

In my opinion this is a superficial interpretation, and we need to look deeper and wider to understand why the IISc excels and what ails our other educational and research establishments.

I am now going to narrate an event that is apparently unconnected, but in reality there is a connection which would become obvious as this article progresses. On Swatantrataa Divas, 15th August 2015, from the ramparts of the Red Fort, New Delhi, Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi made a significant declaration about recruitment in Government jobs at the lowest/entry level.

He said that when a youth of humble origin gets an interview call, he starts looking frantically for someone who can do ‘sifarish’, that is, someone who can recommend him to the authorities and influence decisions behind the scene. It is a common belief that the decisions are taken elsewhere and the interview is only a façade and a cover.

Shri Modi delivered on his promise and has since instituted a recruitment procedure on the basis of marks in the school leaving exam and other documents, and done away with the interview system. He is on record to have rhetorically asked, “What can you judge about a candidate in a ten-minute interview?” 

But why do the bureaucrats need the ‘interview system’ as a cover? They do so because they desire a non-transparent system where the decisions can be arbitrary and unaccountable.

Maintaining an archive of the audio- or video-recorded proceedings of all interviews would be extremely costly, and therefore well-nigh impossible. The interview leaves behind no justiciable evidence as to what were the questions asked, who could answer them and who could not. Therefore, the decisions, which are occasionally abominably unjust, cannot be challenged in a court or tribunal.

We have inherited such an ‘opaque’ system from the days of the British Raj. What is most remarkable is that the British instituted a similarly ‘opaque’ system in the academic administration, the like of which was/is not followed in their own country.

This ‘opaque’ system consists of an “interview by a selection committee”, which is the standard mechanism in the promotion of a teaching faculty in a university (or a research scientist in an establishment like the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) or Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL)). I assert that this system suffers from all the maladies described by Prime Minister Modi above and is the bane of our academic and research institutions. However, there is a notable difference.

Modi’s comments were in the context of fresh recruitment, whereas my assertion is in the context of promotion to a higher post within the establishment. The Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bengaluru is an exception; this institute follows a completely different policy and process in the promotion of its faculty; the process is transparent and justiciable, and is the main reason behind its success in attaining world class. I wish to emphasize here that for fresh recruitment for a faculty or research position an interview is necessary.

The Gajendragadkar Commission 1972: After independence in 1947 new universities and institutes such as the JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) and the IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology), new research laboratories such as the CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research), ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research) and DRDL (Defence Research & Development Laboratory) and many more were founded.

They had two models before them and they chose the British colonial model and we shall discuss the alternative model followed by the IISc later. And, of course, the older universities mostly continued with the colonial legacy. The system, like most opaque systems, encouraged sycophancy and crony academism. The independent minded and creative scientists suffered silently. The quality of decisions varied from institution to institution and generally speaking, it became more and more arbitrary with passing years.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a spate of suicides in the scientist community, particularly so in the sphere of agricultural research. A scientist named Dr. V. H. Shah hanged himself after sending a long letter to the Director General of ICAR, New Delhi.

The Govt. appointed the Gajendragadkar Commission, chaired by a retired and most outstanding Chief Justice of India P. B. Gajendragadkar, to enquire into the problems of the ICAR. The other members of the commission were also of great reputation, namely, Prof D. S. Kothari, Chairman UGC, Prof B. D. Nag Chaudhuri, Scientific Advisor to Ministry of Defence and H. N. Sethna, chairman Atomic Energy Commission. Prof. M. S. Kanungo of the Department of Zoology, BHU, was the member-secretary.

The commission interviewed many scientists, made many visits to labs spread out over the country, and received written inputs from several functionaries, etc. and laboured for a year and submitted a voluminous report divided in many chapters.

An abridged version of the report of the commission is available at https://books.google.co.in/books?id=Qydb7X45MzYC&pg=PA152&lpg=PA152&dq=gajendragadkar+commission+report+1972&source=bl&ots. Several significant chapters of the report are also available at http://swamiscapers.blogspot.in/2007/03/enquiry-commission-report.html. Those interested in the history of our academics and academicians should look into both to find startling revelations.

The Commission recommended that the number of grades in ICAR be reduced to three, namely, Junior Scientist, Senior Scientist and Principal Scientist; that the selection committee system controlled by the ICAR administration is prone to irregularities and lateral influences (sifarish), and that recruitment and promotion be taken away from its purview and  be assigned to the UPSC, with special instructions about how to proceed; that the system of maintaining yearly confidential report on a scientist be abolished and the scientist himself fill a proforma detailing his achievements once a year and submit it to the Head of the Division for further processing; that the scientist/s who have made a distinct contribution to a research work should be the author/s of a paper or report. The last one should be seen in the backdrop of the previous routine practice of including the name of the Head of the Division as one of the authors.

I shall resort to a few selective quotes from the Report (please see Appendix I for parallel   writings on the research and academic institutions around that time, the 1970s).

On Selection Committees for recruitment-cum-promotion: “Apart from grave irregularities which have been observed in individual selections made by the ICAR, and which appear elsewhere in the report, various serious procedural irregularities have also been noticed. An eminent scientist (Witness No. 27) told the committee in his evidence that once he was asked to serve as a member under one of his erstwhile junior officer though earlier he was invariably called as chairman. Another eminent scientist (Witness No. 127) who had worked as expert on a number of ICAR selection committees, deposed before the Committee that in one particular selection the decision taken in the forenoon, was sought to be changed in the afternoon. He opposed this change, and though his point of view was accepted at that time, subsequently he has never been called as an expert on any selection committee.”

On attributing credit of research: “It has been a general complaint before us that, whereas research is carried on by research assistants and the junior scientists when the stage of publishing the results of such research is reached, it has been almost a recognised convention that the name of the head of the division has to be shown along with the actual researcher as being responsible for the result. Some young scientists bitterly complained that their research papers were not published, because they did not want the names of the head to be associated with the publication. We are free to confess that we have not attempted to verify every one of these complaints; ….  But one senior scientist (Witness No. 32) told us that anyone who compares the number of publications to the credit of a scientist before he is appointed the head, with the number of publications to his credit after he becomes the head, it would clearly appear that the complaint made by junior scientists cannot be dismissed as without any substance.”

In my opinion, the Gajendragadkar Commission detected the root cause of the malady but did not suggest a good alternative. It assigns the responsibility of both internal promotion and fresh recruitment to the UPSC (Union Public Service Commission). In doing so, it repeats the original mistake that is, putting recruitment and promotion in the same category and recommending the same instrument, the UPSC, for both. This is the fundamental fault in policy.

The malady and its cause are common to most of our institutions and not specific to ICAR alone. UPSC can hardly do the work for our myriad universities and research institutions. Even for ICAR alone, UPSC is not the right instrument. The government accepted only one of the recommendations, the one on Confidential Report, and rejected all the rest. Mercifully, the government implemented that single accepted recommendation across the board, in all the IITs, Research Labs and universities; it wisely recognized that the malady is common in the entire academic and research institutions.

An alternative springing from ancient ethos and nationalist struggle: We have already mentioned that there is an alternative model for assessment and promotion of a faculty or researcher to a higher post. We shall now talk about the architect of this model. One person who was familiar with the workings of the University of Bombay and had the wisdom to think differently and innovatively was Sir Jamshedji Nusserwanji Tata.

In 1893 Jamshedji was travelling in a ship from Yokohoma, Japan to Vancouver, Canada. He met an unknown Hindu monk as a fellow traveller, named Swami Vivekananda, who was going abroad for the first time in his life to attend the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. What is remarkable is that both men recognized the extra-ordinary and the visionary in the other. In the course of a discussion Swamiji said that the ascetic spirit of India should be re-kindled and harnessed to all nation-building activities and his priority, of course, was education. These words remained etched in the mind of Jamshedji. He must have been observing the rising world-wide fame of the venerable Swami, while formulating his own scheme for higher education. 

In 1898 Jamshedji pledged half of his personal wealth for an institute in Bangalore for post graduate education and research in ‘natural and humanistic’ sciences. Simultaneously he wrote a letter to the Swami recalling their conversation and offered to place the Swami at the helm of the institute. The letter itself is an experience to read but is too long to be given here. The Swami declined since he was too busy building the Ramakrishna Mission near Calcutta, and also in indifferent health.

Jamshedji and his assistant Burjori Jamspji Padshah met Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, in 1898 and the latter summarily shot down the Tata project. Jamshedji’s dreams were shattered. He sent Padshah and his sister to meet Swamiji in Calcutta and discuss the matter. Soon after this (April 1899) Prabuddha Bharat, the English mouthpiece of the Ramakrishna Mission, published from Madras (Chennai) carried the following editorial fully supporting the move of Jamshedji defying the will of the Viceroy:

 “We are not aware if any project at once so opportune and so far reaching in its beneficent effects was even mooted in India, as that of the Post Graduate Research University of the Tata. The scheme grasps the vital point of weakness in our national wellbeing with a clearness of vision and tightness of grip, the masterliness of which is only equal by the munificence of the gift with which it is ushered to the public..... If India is to live and prosper and if there is to be an Indian nation which will have its place in the ranks of the great nations of the world, the food question must be solved first of all. And in these days of keen competition it can only be solved by letting the light of modern science penetrate every pore of the two giant feeders of mankind - agriculture and commerce.... We repeat: no idea more potent for the good of the whole nation has seen the light of the day in modern India. Let the whole nation therefore, forgetful of class or sect or interests join in making it a success.”

Sister Nivedita wrote several articles in The Statesman supporting the Tata project and spoke to British bureaucrats in Calcutta which was the Capital of British India at that juncture. Sir William Ramsay was appointed to review the project in 1900 and he too echoed Curzon. In 1900 Swamiji with another monk and Sister Nivedita travelled to England. Nivedita, before embracing Hinduism, had been a popular teacher in a suburb of London called Wimbledon, and the Secretary of the Seasame Club and as such well known among educationists. To cut a long story short, she along with Ms. Sara Bull, another western disciple of the Swami, organized meetings and mounted a campaign in England. The success of Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, conferring of the Fellowship of the Royal Society (FRS) on him and his fortuitous presence in England around that time helped her campaign. Sir William James, the famous psychologist, supported Tata’s ideas in an essay. Prof Patrick Geddes, a reputed Biologist and educationist, wrote to Nivedita, praising Tata,

“Utilize all that is best in Europe, but do so by the help of all the best in India, not by abandoning it. Your new school of Science would thus acquire individuality and an interest of its own,”

Meanwhile, public opinion in India was gathering momentum in support of the Tata project. Prabuddha Bharat carried another editorial in March 1901. A pressurized British Raj finally relented and gave permission in 1905. Maharaja of Mysore, a disciple of the Swami, donated a large plot of land and the Tata Institute came to be founded formally in 1909. 

Initially it was named The Tata Institute (and renamed later as Indian Institute of Science Bengaluru) and a completely transparent system for faculty promotion was instituted which is assiduously followed till today. Recruitment and promotion were not put in the same category and followed different procedures.

After recruitment a young lecturer/researcher is monitored by his peers who start a dossier on him that continually receives data on teaching, research, laboratory development, papers published, books authored etc. by him. The dossier remains in the safe custody of a different administrative unit and cannot be interfered with and above all can be inspected by the lecturer himself. A more detailed description of the procedure is not warranted here. Suffice it to say that, when after a stipulated period his case comes up for review, he is awarded or denied promotion on the basis of this dossier without an interview. (It needs mention here that when it comes to fresh recruitment, the IISc does conduct an interview.) Sir Jamshedji thought that an academician should not compete with others of his ilk, but should try to do his best and measure himself against pre-specified bench marks, and he enshrined his philosophy in the statutes of the Tata Institute.

The Tata Institute of Social Sciences and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, founded in 1936 and 1945, follow a similar procedure for faculty promotion. The system has been working well and stood the test of time. Above all, the whole process lends itself to judicial review because the dossier contains enough justiciable evidence. Sir Jamshedji would have asked a similar question as Prime Minister Modi and would have followed it up with more loaded ones –

“What can you judge of a learned person in half an hour? Why do you need that extra half hour when you have been observing/ judging/assessing him day after day for last so many years? Why spend so much money in assembling an interview board (the so-called Selection Committee) of experts by offering airfares, hospitality, honorarium and administrative costs?”

The output of the scientific community in India has not been commensurate with the investments made in universities, institutes and research laboratories. A few examples will suffice. We are the largest importer of defence equipment and arms in the world; in comparison, China is a net exporter of these. Indian car makers cannot compete with the Korean companies even in the home country, although we had a 28-year-lead over the Koreans in car-making. We cannot make a passenger aircraft whereas a Brazilian private company, Embraer, is making medium size airliners and has captured 30% of the American market, although their aircraft industry started more than two decades after ours.

Even in the sphere of the pure sciences the Chinese in the last two decades have done better. Graduate and Post-Graduate engineers turned out by our colleges are rarely capable of invention, innovation and design. Our software industry has not produced a single branded product that sells in the world market. In contrast the Russian private industry (in software) that came into being only about 20 years ago has produced a branded anti-virus named Kaspersky. There are many reasons for these multi-faceted deficiencies. The promotion policy/procedure in our academic establishments and national laboratories is a major among them.

Why should we continue with a colonial legacy imposed on us by the foreign rulers? Should we not adopt a model that sprang from our own roots and nationalist struggle? The report of the Gajendragadkar commission should be brought down from the shelf, dusted and re-read. The I. I. Sc. and T. I. F. R., both with the Tata connection, are still the best performing institutes in India. The Govt. should study and implement the alternative model supplied by these institutions and discontinue the Selection Committee System for internal promotions. It would require a strong political will because fierce resistance will be offered by the academic bureaucrats in the saddle. The rest of the scientific community should introspect as to where they went wrong. 

Bifurcation in hierarchy: The venerable Dr Atma Ram (Receiver of Bhatnagar award and Director General CSIR) made the following comment in the 1970s when the issue of suicides in ICAR was under parliamentary gaze:

“There is a class of people who, perhaps instead of doing anything for science, are only telling others what to do. Therefore, the real scientist, the working scientist, finds himself in an extremely difficult position or in a neglected position. The class of people telling others what to do has become so important and some of them are so near the decision-making level that it creates a situation-wherein the real scientist finds it difficult to function in the way he wants to. As a result some of the senior-most professors, directors and others feel a sense of humiliation and it is this which to a great extent is responsible for the frustration." (Dr. Atma Ram in Whither Indian Science, 1973)

Dr Atma Ram draws our attention to a pattern of behaviour that is a product of the ‘opaque’ system for promotions in our academia. I know of a director of one of the IITs who would register to be a guide to a Ph.D. student and request (a request that cannot be refused is really an order) a capable but junior-ranking faculty to be a co-guide. The director, a competent administrator, was truly too busy administering the institute and everyone knew who was doing the actual guiding. It is a forgone conclusion that if a journal or conference publication results, the director would also be a co-author.

There are two sides to this problem. A brilliant researcher, who is really not given to administration and wants to devote his life to research, feels compelled by the circumstances and prevalent milieu in the country to accept a purely administrative post, and thereby the academia and the country lose a precious researcher.

On the other hand, there are many people in the senior category, who truly enjoy power and pelf that come with administrative positions and who are not given to research, acquire clout to “tell others (researchers) what to do”, to lift a phrase from Dr Atma Ram. A moderately successful academician turned competent-bureaucrat (like many Deans, Directors, Vice-chancellors etc.) enjoys both power and prestige in this country, whereas a devoted and meritorious educator/researcher, who stays away from administration, enjoys neither power nor prestige, unless he is superlative and gets recognition abroad by earning an honorary DSc or FRS. This is an unhealthy mindset and needs to change.

English-speaking countries such as the UK, USA, Canada, etc. have a simple solution to this problem. At the age of 50 or so, a professor or a senior scientist is given a clear choice between two paths. Either he opts to become an academic administrator or to remain a teacher/researcher for the rest of his career. If he chooses to be an administrator, he is not allowed to teach or guide a research student nor can he work in a laboratory. His salary remains the same as a professor but he receives extra perks or allowances depending on the position he occupies.

Many senior people, who feel that they are not generating fresh research ideas any more, opt for this cadre. It is they who become Deans, Directors, Vice-Chancellors etc. In other words, there is a bifurcation in the academic cadre and hierarchy. Those who opt to continue as teacher/researcher can, at the most, be a Head of Department, a position which is not permanent but has a fixed tenure. After or while serving as a Head, he can remain a professor/researcher. Once a person makes a choice, he has to stay in his chosen cadre without a scope for revision ever. This system prevents people with administrative clout from ‘telling others what to do’ and foists a mindset in the society at large that respects the true researcher/academician more than the academic administrator.

Conclusion: The Gajendragadkar Commission correctly diagnosed that the Selection Committee System gives unfettered power to the hands of seniors and is often misused, and it is the main cause for frustration among juniors. But the remedy offered by it is not practical. The alternative model for assessment and promotion of a serving faculty, given by Sir Jamshedji Tata and practiced in IISc Bengalore, is the right choice.

Additionally, there should be a bifurcation of the academic cadre at a certain age/seniority into two channels, namely Administrator and Academician. This would eliminate the over-reach of the administrator interfering in academic activities, as pointed out by Dr Atma Ram. Above all, the ascetic spirit that prevailed in the universities of Takshasheela (Taxila in Pakistan) and Nalanda must be awakened and harnessed to the cause of education and research − thus spake Swami Vivekananda.

Appendix I :

Dr K. R. Bhattacharya wrote in Science Today, July 1972,

“And recently, in July 1971, an attempt was made by some IARI scientists to question the truthfulness of certain image-building claims—a basic right of all scientists. But this hardly raised a ripple as it was quickly mowed down by the unabashed use of power and the carrot.

“The incident is worth a recall. The IARI Branch of the Association of Scientific Workers of India brought out a bulletin called Young Scientist in July 1971. (The issue was dated June 1971 and was the first and the last.) In an open challenge "Agricultural Research: Claims versus Realities”—the following points were made: (i) Scientific claims should be discussed in scientific journals and forums, and not over publicity media; (ii) Some of the claims of success made by the IARI were tenuous. For example, it was claimed, Opaque II, a new maize discovery, had high protein content. The article said Opaque II was not an IARI discovery, nor was its protein content beyond doubt-(iii) Many of the new rice strains released in the country were not the best of the available lot, but had been released to humour the “prestige” of certain people at the top, e.g. the Sharbati variety; (iv) IARI scientists claimed to have ‘discovered’ Sharbati Sonora, a mutant wheat variety, whose protein and lysine contents were said to be many times that of the normal variety. But the report of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre in Mexico (CIM-MTT News, July-Aug. 1969) questioned the validity of this claim.

“The article was unsigned. Soon the IARI clamped down on the Association with full administrative pressure. Official memos were addressed to each member of the journal’s editorial board in the form of a printed declaration to be filled in by him stating whether he was/was not responsible for the authorship of the said article. Most backed out and the protest as well as the Young Scientist floundered.”