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Undergraduate research: A way forward to better global rankings of Indian institutes

The Ministry of Human Resource and Development (MHRD) recently came out with its second edition of National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF), which ranks institutes across the country on parameters such as Teaching Learning and Resources, Research and Professional Practice, Graduation Outcome, Outreach and Inclusivity and Perception.

On the list, we have some of the usual suspects such as IISc Bangalore, IITs and BHU doing fairly well in the Research category. However, it is surprising to find some of our best universities such as Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Jadavpur University, University of Delhi, Savitribai Phule Pune University and University of Hyderabad hardly able to cross the 55-mark, out of 100. These are all universities that consist mainly of colleges that teach undergraduate courses. It is, therefore, safe to say that our colleges are not engaging in research as much as we would like them to.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Even some of the standalone premiere institutions like IIM-Ahmedabad and TISS scored an abysmal 13.85 and 6.5 in the same category. With the release of the various global rankings every year, it is reiterated over and over that Indian institutes fare poorly in these rankings because of their appalling scores in research – among other important issues such as governance, investment in education and absence of internationalisation of campuses.

To go beyond what external ranking agencies say, according to data by Nature magazine and Unesco, we have only four Indians per 10,000 labour force engaged in research (China has 18, Russia has 58, and UK and US have 79); of a population of 1.3 billion, India has only about two lakh full-time researchers (of which 14 percent are women). In terms of filing patent applications per one million people, India scores 17 and is way behind China (541), Russia (237), South Korea (4,451) and Japan (3,716). India invests only about 0.9 percent of its GDP in research and development and lags behind countries such as Brazil (1.3) Russia (1.5) China (1.9) and Israel (4.2). Not to mention the quality of research, the type of journals and authenticity of the work published in our country.

Moreover, one would be left wondering as to how, with these abject scores, is India going to support “20 world-class universities initiatives” proposed by our government? Experts, all over the world, agree unanimously that ‘world-class universities’ can only be research universities.

This calls for a serious analysis on what can be done to increase the number of researchers in the country as well as improve the quality of research published. One way of doing it could be by promoting research at the undergraduate level in colleges. By analysing universities, at home and abroad, that engage in undergraduate research, it can be inferred that undergraduate research helps students associate with their traditional classroom education more closely, get better understanding of their chosen discipline, induce a culture of research and have clearer career goals in mind. It pushes students to think critically, ask questions and find innovative solutions to problems around them. This is true for science as well as social sciences students.

Research at the undergraduate level can be very basic, which can involve understanding the basics of research methodology, field visits, analysing occurrences in their environment, trying to find solutions to simple problems, etc. For instance, students can be sent to a lab and explore the interaction of various microorganisms with humans and environment, one can analyse the impurities in water, understand why a website is showing errors, find loopholes in a government policy document, understand why students in the rural areas drop out of government schools, intern with an industry or simply critically review an already published paper.

However, in the existing system of education, most colleges term it as projects and such activities are often restricted to just field visits. Instead, to make it more fruitful and sustain student interest in the topics, they should be asked to write research papers that follow the systematic ways of writing an abstract, introduction, methodology used (observation, interviews, surveys), conclusion, discussions, citations and acknowledgements.

However, to embed it in our present education system, it will be necessary to make undergraduate research a part of the curriculum by ways such as introducing a chapter on basics of writing a research paper, offering extra credits to a student who publishes a paper during the course of his study, getting faculty on board or external mentors, involving industry in research that is relevant to them, among others. Perhaps, it is also a good idea to consider foreign collaborations with colleges abroad to get access to their material and mentors – which can be done by using web technologies such as online courses or Skype.

The additional benefits of this would be that a student will be better placed in choosing an industry or sector they want to work with; their research ability is likely to make them more attractive to prospective employers. It will also help them decide for themselves if they want to ditch a corporate job and opt for higher studies in the future. Moreover, students with research background have higher possibilities of getting international scholarships of the likes of Rhodes. For the university, it will mean more research papers and chances of higher citations.

While implementing undergraduate research, it will be necessary to look for ways to incentivise all stakeholders (not necessarily monetary incentives) such as students, teachers, university and industry. This is important because the existing system is marred with several deficiencies such as a skewed teacher-student ratio, lack of research funds, insufficient infrastructure to support research as well as negligible industry support.

These issues should be addressed in a way that the idea of undergraduate research can be implemented within the given constraints. It is high time we come up with innovative ways to push the number of researchers and quality of research in the country to be able to compete in a globalised world.

This entire process will, at the least, help inculcate the culture of research in our students and produce more informed and disciplined researchers who will aim at producing quality research work.

The author is a Research Fellow on Education with Observer Research Foundation Mumbai. 

Updated Date: Apr 20, 2017 18:33 PM

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