Whenever global rankings of universities are announced, there is some murmur in our media and elsewhere about India’s poor showing. Former President Pranab Mukherjee spoke about this in many forums, asking why quality of our academia cannot be as good as those in other countries.

Research is one aspect that often got flagged, pegged by the observation that the number of publications and their citations are relatively less in India, in comparison with various developed countries. Why are they low? The reasons are many; a few prominent ones are outlined below.

A culture of research is largely missing in our institutions. Collegiality and a singularity of purpose among faculty members are important requirements to build that, where members need to be bonded by shared, research-related values and practices towards building a safe home for testing new ideas.

Vague prospects

Sadly, we lack clarity on “what developing research culture means?” Education administrators in India looked at this in many different ways, such as, (i) building research culture involves incorporating research into an organisational culture that has not previously considered that activity as part of its culture; (ii) implanting a research sub-culture within an organisational culture currently having a distinctive teaching sub-culture; (iii) having a ‘petri-dish’ culture — an environment into which we toss research and expect it to grow, just as we expect bacteria to grow in a petri dish. Unfortunately, none of these help much.

Instead of any comprehensive reviews and follow-up actions, we seem to mindlessly adopt some practices. A glaring example is rules requiring publication in international journals (and presentations at international conferences), as criteria for promotion. No doubt, the intent is to introduce a research culture, which is laudable. However, trying to achieve this goal through international publications tends to undermine the longer-term goal of building an indigenous research culture to address the important problems of society.

The policy of requiring international publications induces faculty to turn toward addressing unfamiliar problems of distant lands for the sole purpose of getting a publication or two so they can get promoted.

This turns the very purpose of research on its head — instead of doing research in order to serve society, faculty start doing research so that they can get it published, treating publication as the end.

Research and publication

Research culture refers to a pattern of basic assumptions about research. In India, we seem to suffer from a tendency to treat research and publication as the same thing, which they are not.

While good research is expected to generate publications in the top rated journals the converse is not true. Because of this tendency, majority of our institutions do not have any institutional research thrust, unlike in the west. Important is to examine not just what the researchers do, but why they do it.

In India, publications happen due to individual initiatives — often driven by survival or promotional needs rather than being drawn out of purposeful collective effort. The difference, thus, is ‘want to’ versus ‘have to’, propeller being ‘individual need’ rather than ‘common zeal’.

Why does this situation persist despite repeated appeals for betterment? This happens because dealing with ‘paradox of scope’ often blurs the vision of our education administrators. The expanding periphery and contracting core of our colleges and universities stretches the already limited adaptive capability of governance structures to the breaking point.

Data assessing several key dimensions of universities and colleges — full-time faculty, liberal arts and scientific education, student services that act in loco parentis, the library, etc. — demonstrate how the traditional core of the university is declining.

At the same time, the periphery of the institution — outsourcing partnerships, corporate training, vocational courses, discrete research centres, etc. — is continuously expanding.

Perils of peripheral growth

The challenge is to take back charge of the institution. For that, the institution needs to define a strategy that specifies the domain in which it will operate. The risk inherent in the new competitive environment is that as the institution expands everywhere in the periphery, it will be successful nowhere. Unmistakably, research in India has become a victim to this peripheral growth.

One common requirement of “developing a research culture” is to move from a few isolated individual researcher projects to an environment where research is so pervasive that it appears to be the activity of a large number of interconnected colleagues. We need steps in that direction.

What is being done to achieve that? Apparently, precious little. A recent news item indicated that a single higher education regulator would replace the UGC and AICTE. The proposed Higher Education Empowerment Regulation Agency, being developed by the HRD ministry, is aimed at eliminating overlaps in jurisdictions and remove irrelevant regulatory provisions. Will this help?

Perhaps yes, but only to a limited extent because real requirement is to have close examination of (i) the philosophy that guides an organisation’s policy towards research; (ii) the climate about research that is conveyed in an organisation by the physical and administrative facilities as well as the way in which researchers in the organisation interact with others; (iii) the rules of the game in place for getting along with research in the organisation; (iv) behavioural regularities when people engage in research, such as the language and the rituals used.

To move ahead, institutions must get empowered to look within rather than being cowed down by a regulator, in whatever name we may call it.

Better will be to have a facilitating body instead of a regulating one if our aim is to promote a research culture.

The writer is former dean and director-in-charge of IIM, Lucknow