Knowledge Hubs for Tomorrow
Create education clusters that promote innovation and application to raise our scholastic standards
The importance of education is continually emphasised in public discourse. We hear — and mouth — endless repetitions about India as a knowledge power, of how education will empower and will help us to magnify the demographic dividend.
In this context, recent news items are like a slap in the face: hopefully, a wake-up call to all those concerned. First, there was the report of India being ranked 73 out of 74 countries on the basis of a global survey (PISA) of the educational capabilities of students of class V in maths, science and reading. Second, the poor academic standard of our school students was re-emphasised in the findings of the independent yearly study (ASER) done by Pratham.
Then, at the university level, our standing — based on the rankings by standard global surveys — continues to be dismal, with but a few stray institutions finding their way into the top 100 (or even 500). Finally, in a recent survey of think tanks, so crucial in the formulation of public policies and in conducting research studies, there is but one Indian organisation in the global top 50.
There are many valid questions regarding the criteria that determine these rankings. Some may even infer bias. Yet, few will deny that there is a great degree of truth regarding the poor quality of our education and research system, at least in relative terms. Other indices related to patents and publications in respected journals point to the same conclusion.
It is time for new thinking and quick action. Much needs to be done in schools; that is not discussed here. On higher education, supporting and improving existing institutions is an obvious necessity. However, more than doubling the present number of students (to reach the target of 30% GER) will require vast expansion of infrastructure. This presents an opportunity to take new initiatives that enable growth while simultaneously meeting other objectives like quality, excellence, research and innovation.
One such initiative, long suggested but yet to happen, is the creation of designated areas where a vibrant educational ecosystem can take root. These learning, education and research nodes (LEARN) would be centres that promote learning, innovation and application. The learning institutions will be of varied disciplines as innovation flowers best when there is interaction between, and at the intersection of, different disciplines. Research centres or labs will be next door and there will be a strong industry or user interface. The last will ensure translation of research into concrete applications, the scaling of these and — where appropriate — their ‘monetisation’ for money or social gain.
Institutions selected to operate in these areas should be given far greater freedom than what is presently constrained by the stifling regulatory framework of UGC, AICTE and other bodies. Specifically, there is need for autonomy in selecting curriculum and courses; qualifications, recruitment and terms and conditions (including compensation) for faculty and staff; and the method of selection of students. On the last, there could be stipulations regarding a clearly defined, publicly announced and transparent process, with 20% of the students getting full waiver of all fees and hostel charges.
LEARNs will provide land for selected schools. In these schools, preference in admissions will be given to the children of faculty members and professionals from institutions in the zone. This is an important factor for attracting and retaining key faculty and top-notch professionals.
R&D institutions — both governmental and corporate — will be incentivised to be in the LEARNs. In some cases, existing R&D facilities will serve as the nucleus; in others, existing institutions may serve as the nucleus. Industries linked to the core discipline of the R&D institution will be encouraged to set up facilities in the zone, facilitating interaction amongst industry, R&D and academia.
Thus, one is looking at a cluster or agglomeration of universities, research labs or national research institutions, incubation facilities, start-up and established companies. Imagine a cluster that has institutions like Tata Institute of Social Sciences, an IIT, an IIM, a large multi-disciplinary central university with emphasis on the humanities and creative arts, large national research institutes like the CSIR labs, an incubation centre with start-up companies and some established industries. This will serve to kick-start innovation by creating a conducive ecosystem. Other ingredients like angel or venture funding, mentoring and networking will also be needed to ensure that ideas and innovation are translated to marketable products or services. In Silicon Valley, for example, such ecosystems have evolved and grown organically. The challenge is to create this through active intervention. If successful, this will give rise to high-quality educational institutions and stimulate innovations that are market- and need-based.
Such a model provides a broad framework which can be adapted for different contexts. It does not prescribe the discipline, organisational form or focus of educational institutions or R&D facilities; nor does it pick any specific industry sector for incentives. Thus, it respects and benefits from India’s diversity.
There would be many questions and sceptics for any such idea, and opposition on many grounds. A practical way around much of this would be to begin this as a pilot project, limited to three or four locations, and expand while learning from this experience. The dire educational and research scenario needs prompt and bold action: LEARNs are one of the possible ways forward; we need many more.