Friday, April 9, 2010

Fundamental flaws with Indian education

Raju Narisetti, managing editor, The Washington Post, began his professional career by selling cheese and butter for a dairy cooperative but soon realised that his calling lay elsewhere: in journalism. He says

The focus on year-end exams, the static nature of testing based on rarely updated textbooks, the unwillingness to formally recognise and reward intra-year two-way conversation in a course between students and teachers, the fixed set of subject pairs you can take rather than being able to build your coursework, teachers who aren't measured by their ability to attract students to willingly attend classes, teacher education that is ancient in its focus on curriculum development and teaching methods -- the list is endless and yet something that can be fixed because it isn't rocket science.


Anonymous said...

I find a great sense of distress when I read article like this. I was reading today the autobiography (essay) of Prof. Venky, same story. Everywhere same mantra echoes i.e., "Criticize India as much as you can and show your success story as a fairytale, which was possible only because of your exceptional strength and talent in spite of being born in India (which some of them think was a historical mistake)". The fundamental problem with their theory is that they have all acquired a degree or knowledge from this flawed system, which would otherwise had cost them hundreds of thousands of dollar rest aside the other social and hurdles, which every student faces here. Yet they think that education system in India was a hurdle and simply does not work. There could not be a better testimony for our educational system than the repeated concern shown by President Obama about competition coming from India and China in science and mathematics education. Having said that like every other educational system Indian system also has its own flaws. We all must do at our own end to improve or contribute towards its betterment and not just criticizing it to acquire additional millage on our fairytale success story.

Anonymous said...

Dear A,

In India, Math and Science education at school level is highly emphasized which is what President Obama talks about. But of course University level graduate research education is not in good shape in India with very few exceptions.

Let me highlight a major difference between Indian and American education in schools (not University). American education system is very applied and research oriented. There is no need to cram things and have only "one answer" as in the Indian schools. I am not favoring either of the systems as they have their own strengths and weaknesses. American system allows students to be inquisitive and very hands-on which is much needed for research. Indian students often do well in analytical work but not in labs. A large number of the Indian students struggle in US University labs and are always looking for technicians which is not so common here. Of course, this is also due to lack of lab training in India and over reliance on technicians who are afraid that equipment will be damaged. In my student days at IIT, a student could not even think of operating a scanning electron microscope. I hope it it is much better now.

Ankur Kulkarni said...

Being hands-on doesn't necessarily mean being better.

Indians are more brain-centred than most other people (as argued by people like Amartya Sen). We live in our brains. We think highest of activities of intellectual weight like argumentation and imagination. Some how in all this we have lost track of putting more emphasis on the concrete "doing" of things.

We need a better balance, but that does not mean what we are is bad.

Also, at the undergrad level, even the American system involves extensive cramming and endless mechanical problem solving. The smarter ones there too complain of not being challenged enough.

If you take post-graduate courses in India, you will see that they are much more profession-oriented and focus more on mastery of the subject than on routine problem solving.

Of course, I do agree that due to certain *individuals* (teachers, staff etc) students might not emerge as inquisitive. But those sort of personality oddballs exist everywhere.

Anonymous said...

"If you take post-graduate courses in India, you will see that they are much more profession-oriented and focus more on mastery of the subject than on routine problem solving."

Have you taken post graduate courses in Bangalore or Mysore univ? in NITs? They are pathetic

Do not base your comments on education in IITs; This serve a samll percentage only.

Ankur Kulkarni said...

Why do you think that post-graduate courses in ordinary US universities are good?

Anonymous said...


As Indians we need to be self critical about our own education system. It is a fact that research standard in many US universities (beyond the top 50) are much better than the IITs. World rankings also show that the IITs are placed somewhere after 400. Infact china, Israel, Japan, singapore etc have better Universities than us. ISI highly cited shows India has just 9 researchers in that category of which 5-6 are from IISc and TIFR. China has 50+ not to speak of Japan and Israel. Obviously India has talent and great analytical minds. US universities has a large portion of Indian Faculties who are high performing. However the indian faculties in Indian Universities do not exhibit the same peformance.
coming to the quality of high school education. Well I never liked the American style where the rigor in maths and science were lacking in general. But american kids do become more creative. But then step back and analyze the Indian examinations. My cousin is appearing for 6-7 different exams for engineering entrance in 20 days in addition to his own 12th standard board exam. This is sheer torture. There is also a lot of mindless problem solving and number cramming.
Faults are there in the system which needs appreciation and thought. India is a great pool for talent. But apart from IISC, TIFR, and other similar institutes research standard is not high and almost non-existent in NIT and state universities.

Prof. SB

Ankur Kulkarni said...

Prof SB,

We need to be critical, but rationally so. Not as a habit. I think we Indians criticise ourselves to death. It as if we feel we would not have achieved the purpose of our lives if we are not critical of ourselves. My bet is that even if Indian universities do magically end up occupying the top ranks of the world, people would continue to find some faults with the system or the people or whatever and continue to criticise and crib.

On the other, there are numerous faults with the American system too. I don't see any outpouring of acidic discontent on the American system. It as if Indian system has to be held hugely higher standards just because it is Indian. For eg the American system puts scientists above science and careers above understanding and enlightenment. There is a mad rush for funding, not necessarily because the research is costly, but only because faculty promotions are judged on those criteria. These are serious problems and they need to be answered with deep thought.

I am not saying that one system is better than the other. But that there are faults with all systems and they need to be criticised more objectively and with caution.

Anonymous said...


No system is perfect. There are faults in US system but overall it has been more productive by all measures. It is true that there is a mad rush for funding. But funding alone does not gets tenure. I am telling you from my experience in several Tenure and Promotion committees.

Let me extend your argument of scientific enlightenment and discovery....In India there is no need for mad rush for funding except equipment. PI summer salary, student salary, tuition everything is provided by Govt. This is ideal condition for scientific discovery and enlightenment. How many Indian scientists are really engaged in scientific enlightenment and discovery? The data in Prof. SB's post proves that there are very few.

I feel there is a need to strike right balance. I agree with you that there is no need to be critical of all India all the time. On the same hand, there is no need to react defensively if someone is pointing out the facts. Probably, most of the Indians are too emotional. That is also an indicator in our foreign policy where other countries praise our great culture to make us happy without committing the real things or business, as they say.

Prof. TA

Anonymous said...

"In India there is no need for mad rush for funding except equipment."

And the proposals are weak and the equipment brought is rarely used. I know of several instances in which the equipment was not working from the day of purchase and no one cared.

There is a lot of money wasted on scientific equipment.

Anonymous said...

I am quite astonished by the naivete (to put it politely) of some of the comments in the above posts. I returned to India as a faculty after spending about 7 years in north america. I came back to join one of those much maligned universities whose quality of faculty and their research output is a subject of never ending derision. Here is my perspective, which is meant to merely highlight some of the issues that are often ignored and not to deny that problems exist; they do!
1. The level of infrastructural support here is often appalling.
My colleagues and I have to deal with UPS suppliers and AC servicing agents on a regular basis when something breaks down and they often do. On many occasions, we have had staff switch off power supply without any prior notice resulting in shutting down of the computer cluster and loss of substantial computing time. Power failures increase in frequency during the summer months and so do the failures of the backup generators.
2. Administrative staff is usually uncooperative and a lot of time is spent in getting even routine things done like buying consumables or computing equipment. Dont forget 4 quotations are necessary and the lowest one has to be approved (for any purchases over Rs. 50K) by a purchase committee which meets roughly once in 2 months. If you dont want to end up with crappy equipment, you have to manipulate the system and that requires more time and effort.
3. I work in an interdisciplinary area and getting students is not easy; and when you get them, a lot of time has to be spent in training them from scratch especially in a inter-disciplinary field which has not yet matured in India.
4. getting postdocs is out of question unless you are in IISc or TIFR. Postdocs play a crucial role in the research output of many US and European universities.

These are just some of the problems which are unique to Indian institutions. I could list many more but if you are not convinced by now of the differences in working environment between US and Indian research institutions, you will never be convinced.

In spite of these problems, the number of researchers sincere about their work and their responsibility of training students is increasing and many are doing reasonably well though perhaps not as well in terms of the number of high impact publications as US/Europe/China/Singapore researchers.

So being self-critical is essential because only by acknowledging the problems and having an honest discussion about them is it possible to improve the system. However, for those of you who are sitting abroad and feel the need to constantly judge the Indian research scenario, do so by all means, but be honest enough to make fair comparisons. It is easy to say that since "PI summer salary, student salary, tuition everything is provided by Govt., This is ideal condition for scientific discovery and enlightenment." while implicitly implying that the rest is equivalent or does not matter. However that is just not true. Do come and visit some universities and IIT's and not just as a pampered guest faculty, but as someone willing to understand the constraints imposed by the system and then make your judgements. I bet they will be more "fair and balanced" then.

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of the comments of SS. Especially on the issue of post-docs. They are a very important part of any group. But because of low salaries(their stipend is just 2-4000 more than student stipends) and lack of respect for somebody who does a postdoc in India, most people prefer to take up post-docs abroad. This attitude is making our science suffer a lot and some senior people should take up this issue more seriously. While everybody else gets a salary hike with new pay-commission, postdocs have to wait for the funding agencies to wake up. Even then their felllowship is raised by at most 3-4000 every 5 years. There seem no incentive of finishing your PhD unless you get a postdoc abroad.
Its high time we bring some respect to postdoctoral researchers in India.


Anonymous said...

In India, once a faculty gets the professor position, in most of the cases he/she stops doing research. This is obviously because there is no incentive in doing further reserach. At the same time, he/she doesn't loose anything by not continuing the research.
Ofcourse there are exceptions but they are only the 'exceptions'.

Debangshu Mukherjee said...

I will post here as an undergrad student of IIT. I have been pursuing research from my second year and in fact have two international publications to my credit. The problems I faced were:
1) Professors, at least here are rarely part of the problem. Most of the full professors spend a considerable time in the labs and have considerably high research outputs. People who come back with degrees from prestigious universities from all over the world do not join IIT just to become a prof, they join for something far more nobler.
2) Money: An SEM costs several crores, a HR-TEM again like that. What is the research budget of IITs? Compare that with MIT. MIT's budget is around 40 times higher.
3) With old equipment you may do work, but for cutting edge work, you need the best equipment. Can you think of it, IIT KGP does not have a single clean room.
4) Professors have little autonomy over purchase decisions. I don't understand how purchase decisions can be handled by bureaucrats whose knowledge in that field is zero.
5) Even if you have an instrument, the waiting time. It takes 2 months to get a TEM slot, another 2 months to get a SQUID slot. So not only time's wasted, but the output drastically decreases as the publications you can do are severely limited in number.
6) Personally I know several professors who have shifted from experimental to modeling and simulation just because of the problems mentioned above,
And lastly, some of the problems like going through a purchase committe for an UPS can be and have been solved. IITKGP and I think IISc too give seed grants to new profs to buy such essential equipment without being harassed.This solution can be implemented elsewhere too.
As far as inquisitiveness goes I don't know about the rest of India, in IIT that statement is an outright lie. The more you ask questions the better it is actually here. I remember we got a huge outburst from a prof in my third year because we were too silent and were not asking questions at all. In each course I have taken I have seen that doubts and questions are actively encouarged. The better questions you ask, the higher is your impression actually.