From Gautam Desiraju (University of Hyderabad), who previously wrote this this piece in Nature, comes another excellent article, “Science Education and Research in India”, in the current (June 14) issue of EPW.
Unfortunately EPW’s website is rather weird and I can’t provide a direct link; but The PDF is here (thanks km!), and it is on the front page at the moment and will be freely readable for the next four weeks.
I agree with nearly everything he says. Only with regard to the cost of education I have a disagreement. (Based on the rest of his article, and my previous conversations with him, the disagreement may not be major.) He seems to suggest that, in contrast to subsidising everyone heavily as at present, only meritorious students should be subsidised and others asked to pay full fees. I think the concept of “merit” is overvalued, and financial aid should be entirely need-based (see MIT’s policies for example). In the “nature vs nurture” debate, I come down on the side of nurture, but I also believe that nurture does not end at a cram-school in Kota. It should be the job of an elite institution to create merit, not just demand it at the entry level.
This also relates to a current debate on Abi’s blog on the IIT-JEE rankings. The reason the IIT-JEE test is so savagely difficult is that the IITs want to rank each individual candidate on entry. I think that is an extremely unhealthy practice. But the reason they want to do it is that they want to assign courses and campuses to students at the entry level: a “meritorious” student picks, say, computer science at IIT Kanpur even before ever entering the campus of that institute. It would be far better to give all students the same broad-based education (covering engineering, science and humanities) for two years, and ask them to specialise in the third year onwards; that way, some bright and motivated students, who have seen the atmosphere at several departments first-hand and done hands-on work there, will learn that there are interesting and productive areas beyond the “hot topics” favoured by the media, reducing the competitive pressure to get into the “hot” departments (and departments can effectively compete to attract the better students); and, to the extent that comparison of student merits is required at all, it will be based on their performance over 2 years at the institution itself, not on a 3-hour examination.
The “merit” mania and the mushrooming of cram-schools has poisoned the childhoods and teenage years of a few million Indian schoolchildren by now. It needs to be tackled, and the IITs should take the lead, since they are the major cause of the problem.