Higher education in India has always been an interesting subject for me since I started to focus on education journalism. There was a time I interacted with lots of education experts to get an idea about the future of higher learning in the country. The other day, as I read about the entry of Bangalore's Indian Institute of Science (IISC) into the world's top 100 universities, I was reminded of a suggestion offered by an eminent academic.
While the idea may not be new, it has the potential to make a phenomenal change in India's higher education and research landscape. It was about the creation of an 'elite university'.
It was in January 2014 that the subject arose in an energetic conversation with celebrated Indian theoretical physicist Thanu Padmanabhan. He is currently a distinguished professor at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, (IUCAA) at Pune, and a true physics maverick, whose contributions related to the modelling of dark energy in the universe and the interpretation of gravity as an emerging phenomenon have made a deep impact in physics.
"[Padmanabhan] made no bones about his opinion that top-level science is a domain of the elite, requiring special and exclusive mentoring for students from day one of their school graduation."
So, what's this elite university? The answer, of course, lies in the word 'elite', defined as "a select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society." The cosmologist in Padmanabhan believes that some aspects of science belong to the elite and are not accessible to everyone. He wants the world to realise and accept this. "You cannot get Olympic runners or Nobel Prize winners from the average or the mean population," he told me. The government is spending a lot of money to increase the average quality and quantity of science students through multiple programmes, he said, but "I would have been very happy if I could see a very small fraction of this money being spent on picking out 100 students at plus-two level from a country with a population of over a billion."
The incumbent government, which has the noble aim of turning India into a superpower, could consider placing this idea on the must-do list of the HRD Ministry.
Here's how it would work:
Form an institute - let's call it the Elite University -- for outstanding students of science, admitting not more than 100 people a year: 25 each from physics, mathematics, chemistry and biology backgrounds. Each student will then be individually trained in accordance with their interest and ability.
These students will be allowed a completely different way of progressing further in their BSc and MSc courses, without being straitjacketed them into rigid programme requirements, such as five subjects in the first year, three in the second, etc. These students will also not be forced to take up subjects outside their areas of interest (such as a compulsory requirement for ancient history)... Conventional treatments like these all have to end. According to Padmanabhan it doesn't make any sense for these elite students.
There must be a stream which is made available for a tiny faction of elite students selected very rigorously on a nationwide basis, and they have to be mentored and trained right from day one and treated as very special citizens. "If you can do that, you'll have Nobel Prize winners among them 30 years later," predicted Padmanabhan. India doesn't have such programmes today even in the much-celebrated IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) and IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management).
Science-specialised higher education institutes like the IITs, IISC and IISER (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research) are concentrating more on overall development, which, according to Padmanabhan, is very good for average and above-average students. However, the approach and functioning of these institutions are inadequate for the real elite. He made no bones about his opinion that top-level science is a domain of the elite, requiring special and exclusive mentoring for students from day one of their school graduation. "It would be very good if the government could form such an institute. You shouldn't be apologetic about calling it elite," he concluded.
Human Resource and Development Minister Smriti Irani can think of this avenue for excellence at a time when her performance as an education minister has come under heavy criticism from political opponents and academia alike.
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