In an effort to improve teaching and research standards, higher education in India has been subject to several changes in the recent past, mostly modelled on patterns from the west; this includes the introduction of the semester system, course credits, continuous assessment, seminars, etc. A matter of special concern for the educational authorities has been the quality of research despite the vast network of research bodies and university faculties; a number of characteristic features point towards the sorry state of Indian research: absence of globally recognised research institutions, inadequate number of research publications, lack of originality and the consequent negligible contribution of Indian scientists/researchers to society.
Several measures were instituted to face with this situation; the introduction of compulsory coursework on the lines of universities in the west consisting of classroom-based instruction in research-related subjects at the M.Phil and Ph.D level is one aspect of a concerted effort by the UGC to improve research standards. The assumption seems to be that such a period of additional training will equip the future scholar with the necessary skills to pursue research, as well as provide for a smooth transition from the masters to the research level.
Well-meaning as this may be, however, one should not be surprised if compulsory coursework alone fails to produce the targeted improvements in research quality. It’s not because future scholars are unaware about research and research methodologies that they are unable to do good research; instead, it’s because our schools and colleges have not trained them to think, study and work independently; because they have not imparted the student the aptitude and skills needed for research, namely, the development of a critical attitude of inquiry, effective writing and argumentation skills, and a love for learning. What 15 or more years of classroom based passive learning could not achieve, another such 6 month course is unlikely to accomplish much.
In fact, if we intend to look into the causes of poor research, we must first look at the forces shaping the minds and attitudes of the post-graduate student seeking to pursue research. During a decade or so of class-room based passive learning at school, a student is more or less force-fed things ranging from the origins of the universe to the appreciation of literature, without any concern for proper comprehension and assimilation; there is no emphasis in developing in the student any kind of interest or passion for learning and knowledge; throughout school, the student comes to associate education and learning with passivity, conformism and coercion.
The excessive emphasis on results makes learning and education purely an instrument for social approval and material betterment, rendering it utterly devoid of personal significance. This instrumentalisation of education reaches its zenith during high-school and senior secondary school where rigorous, unsustainable activity focussed on immediate outcome is expected of students; but this type of uni-dimensional effort produces no lasting learning in the student beyond the objectives of better scores or entry to a reputed college. The student comes to associate learning and intellectual activities with drudgery; it is no wonder he does not make for a good research scholar.
Colleges don’t turn out future scholars much for the same reasons as schools, for college is but a continuation of the same outdated approach as school. There is no impetus for the college student to hone deeper understanding of his subject or develop critical thinking and argumentation skills. Lectures are routinely read out from prepared notes, and questions are not encouraged; syllabus is clearly delimited for purposes of ease of teaching and exams and answer keys and notes further save the trouble of wide reading; exams favour conformism and discourage creativity- students are expected to reproduce the prescribed answers and ideas and even penalised otherwise. In such an environment what opportunities are there for a college student for getting good at research skills such as critical thinking, effective writing, and argumentation?
True, the future scholar needs to be aware about research methods and trends, but these should ideally be taken up during post graduate studies itself; moreover, as noted, the knowledge of research methods in itself can not produce a good scholar. The answer as we saw lies elsewhere: schools and colleges have to evolve from a paradigm of passivity/teaching to centres of learning and enquiry; the learning ought itself to be a personal discovery and pursuit; not as much the imposition of more and class-work, lectures, assignments or examinations, than the harmonious development of a critical, receptive and inquisitive mind.
Nor is it that we have to blindly follow the practices and the standards imposed by the west. We would do especially well to guard ourselves from the increasing proliferation of corporate money in research activities in the west; nor should we place an excessive emphasis on ranking and results as in the west. It’s not enough that research is effective; it’s equally important that it is socially relevant and consistent with the ideals of democracy.