Pure sciences remain the least preferred choice for several students. Will this situation change?"There is a hierarchy of ignorance about courses in pure science and the kind of opportunities which are available."

India is in many ways at a crossroads. At a time when grand claims are being made about transforming the country into a knowledge economy, it is pertinent to look into the huge divides which exist in the education sector. College admissions are on in the State and it’s the same old story that continues — very few takers for pure science and fine arts courses.

It is extremely rare to come across a Class XII student who aspires to become a researcher or a physicist. “There is not much parental or social acceptance for courses in science. Engineering is seen as a safe option,” says V. Balaji, Professor of mathematics at the Chennai Mathematical Institute.

“There is a hierarchy of ignorance about courses in pure science and the kind of opportunities which are available. Most teachers themselves are not aware. There is a huge communication gap. Researchers are much more than just lecturers in higher educational institutions,” he added.

There is a notion that Indian industry does not employ scientists and researchers. But there is a dearth of well-qualified physicists and mathematicians. Innovation and fundamental research is currently the domain of centrally-aided labs. But as the economy expands, the need for basic research is bound to increase.

India produces about 4,00,000 engineers and 2,00,000 IT professionals annually. But, it graduates just 20,000 master’s degree holders and fewer than 1,000 Ph.Ds in engineering each year. It is evident that a huge volume of engineering graduates go directly into the job market. India is not graduating enough Ph.Ds to meet even the growing staff requirements of its universities, as a result of which even the faculty quality remains extremely poor.

“The rapid expansion of the IT industry and stagnation in most other sectors is the reason for the current demand for engineering courses,” says A. Narayanasamy, former dean at the University of Madras.

Only if they pursue their studies in the field for 10 years after their schooling do science graduates have a chance of finding a very good job, according to him. “There is also a lot of uncertainty. On the other hand, the starting salary package is very high for an IT professional than a professor or an administrator and they can start earning when they are just 22 or 23,” says Mr. Narayanasamy.

Many students tend to agree. “It’s all about going through the motions for four years and finally landing up a good job. Engineering courses are popular because they are perceived to be capable of offering instant success,” says Abhinay, an electronics engineer and currently an employee at TCS.

Business motive drives the education ‘industry’ today, according to experts. There is no balance in education sector growth. That is why private players have swooped in, in the case of engineering. There are not many arts and science colleges cropping up because they cannot break even.

A major reason for pure science and mathematics courses not attracting good talent is also the declining standard of many of the famed colonial-era universities, feels Professor Balaji. “The courses themselves are not modelled in the right way and the quality of teaching does not inspire creative thinking,” he says.

Though the IT boom and the amount of opportunities available for engineering graduates is a short-term advantage, many experts question the viability of India continuing to serve as the world’s back-office instead of developing its own research potential.

Harish Trivedi, professor at Delhi University, terms back-office professionals as cyber coolies who “work not on sugar plantations but on flickering screens.”

Venkatachalapathy, Professor and Researcher at the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), agrees. “Our interests are still very derivative. Our research questions are still formulated by the first world. The number of patents and original research publications from India is abysmally low. The Knowledge Commission wants to show results in 2-3 years. But when it comes to the education sector, 20 years is too short,” he says.