31 Jul 2020 20:44 IST

New Education Policy gives pride of place to research in universities

When students are exposed to frontier research during their studies it will have a multiplier effect

One central recommendation of the National Education Policy, and a big departure from the education policy followed since India’s Independence, is that it gives research a prominent position and brings research back to the universities.

It reverses the long-followed policy where research was taken away from universities to specialised institutes. To get a perspective on this policy, we need to go back to the time right after Independence, when Nehru’s firm belief was that science would play an important role in nation-building. This meant encouraging research, particularly scientific and engineering research. The question was where would this take place — in Universities or dedicated institutes and laboratories?

A debate ensued, particularly among eminent scientists of the time, including Meghnad Saha, Homi Bhabha, Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar and KS Krishnan. Eventually, the idea of standalone research institutes found favour. As well-meaning as it was, the unfortunate outcome was that research institutes, as opposed to universities, would get the bulk of the funds for research.

A clear divide

This was clear from the very beginning as Homi Bhabha, who was appointed the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission in in 1949, wrote to Meghnad Saha in 1954 — “the role of universities is to do research which extends the frontiers of knowledge or opens up new avenues, while work of a technological nature involving the application of known principles in carrying out or development of established operations, which incidentally is far more expensive, should be done in laboratories especially established for the purpose.”

This compartmentalisation of research, and channelling much of the resources to these special laboratories (like CSIR, DRDO, DAE, and so on) sounded the death knell for research in universities and, over time, there were hardly any funds even for fundamental research. This system has continued to the day and has spread beyond basic sciences. This approach, to a certain extent, also resulted in thinking and working in silos, which the report sees as a major problem in the current higher education system.

Moreover, as teaching, mostly in colleges, was far removed from where research was being done and by those who were not researchers, it was not informed by current research and resulted in fossilised material being taught in classes. The gulf between the frontier of the subject and what was being taught was huge. This became a deterrent for students to pursue any research or even get interested in taking up research as a career in the future.

Potential multiplier effect

The New Education Policy aims to reverse this and bring back research to the universities with the creation of National Research Foundation (NRF). By encouraging research in existing universities and also setting up new research universities, we can expect major gains in a few years. Education can become much more exciting. Students can get close to the frontier of knowledge through their coursework in universities and get initiated into research alongside. Thus, the entry cost to a research career will be reduced and can give a huge fillip to research projects in the country. Indeed, there will be a multiplier effect.

This assumes even more importance in an era where we are witnessing rapid changes, not only in technology, but also in the societal structure, particularly in India. A thick fog of uncertainty engulfs the future. To prepare students for such a future, so that they can succeed as an individuals and meaningfully contribute to society, it is essential that they become independent thinkers who are able to frame a problem, analyse it and then look for solutions — rather than be mechanical problem-solvers. Exposure to research at an early stage is the key to such thinking. This can only happen when research and teaching coexist in university.

(The writer is Dean of International Partnerships and Professor and Head, Department of Economics, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Shiv Nadar University.)

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