I have not met Saul Perlmutter, winner of the 2011 Nobel prize in physics. It is, however, inspiring to know he is a colleague, as are nine other Nobel laureates.
These distinguished gentlemen do the same thing I — somewhat more undistinguished — do as a visiting fellow at the University of California at Berkeley in San Francisco’s Bay Area, they teach. There is much to be inspired by. For instance, while he accelerates our knowledge of the universe’s expansion, Perlmutter challenges 120 undergraduate students to explore music through the prism of science.
At a time when a US presidential candidate trashes higher education and India ponders new funding increases alongside declining outcomes, I am conscious of the freedom, foresight and investment that created one of the world’s great universities and, now, sustains it at a time of trial.
At Berkeley, 23 alumni have won Nobels. The achievements of others are only somewhat less significant — such as founding companies called Intel, Apple, Sun Microsystems, Google Earth and, my personal favourite, Chez Panisse, the restaurant that inspired the simple, organic style of cooking called California cuisine. There are too many other Berkeley notables to list here, but I cannot omit J Robert Oppenheimer, he who fathered the atomic bomb and after witnessing its destructive power, quoted the Bhagvad Gita (he learned Sanskrit in 1933 and read the Gita in that language) to say, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Given the magnificence of such a system of learning, it is sobering to know that the US in general and the state of California in particular are slashing spending on education, even as China and India press forward. Across the US, public funding fell 12% over the last five years. In California, which is bankrupt, it is down 20%, and the state has been roiled by student and faculty protests. At Berkeley — one of 10 University of California campuses — state funding now stands at 10%, down from 52% about 30 years ago. Berkeley tuition costs are up 300% from 1981, and the university is about a finish a two-year campaign to raise $3 billion.
Raising tuition fees is not a long-term solution for a public university and only provides ammunition for the growing hostility among US conservatives towards higher education. Rick Santorum, a strong candidate in the Republican party race to elect a presidential candidate to challenge Barack Obama, recently accused Obama of seeking to increase college enrolments because colleges are “indoctrination mills”, apparently responsible for dragging the world’s only superpower towards a godless purgatory (and creating liberal voters).
From the 1950s to the 1970s, US students received college degrees in record numbers, mainly at public universities. The result was an army of world-leading scientists and professionals. “Public higher education has been the gateway to the middle class but that gate is shutting — just when income and wealth are more concentrated at the top than they’ve been since the 1920s, and when America needs the brainpower of its young people more than ever,” writes Robert Reich, a Berkeley professor of public policy, in his blog. “This is nuts.”
Yet, earlier this week, the United Nations’ World Intellectual Property Organisation reported that US universities remain the most prolific international patent filers globally; 30 of the top 50 institutions are American (followed by Japan and South Korea, with seven each, Israel with two, Australia, China, Denmark and Singapore with one each — India does not figure).
Among institutions, the world’s largest filer of patents is, unsurprisingly, the University of California system. Anecdotally, I concur. Apart from the innovative, even radical, thinking and thinkers I see around me, as a science writer, I often trawl new global scientific papers, only to find many of the authors in neighbouring buildings and cities.
Last month I met a Berkeley scientist, head of a typically multi-disciplinary team of neurologists, psychologists, engineers and statisticians that has converted brain waves into videos. Just back from his first visit to India and an IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) — I won’t name him or the IIT, so he won’t be embarrassed — he was perplexed by the intellectual atmosphere. “It was only my first visit, but it seemed so much like a military institution, so hierarchical,” he said. I think his larger point is that to excel, to be truly world class, universities, their students and professors must imbibe and dispense independent thought and action and learn to be leaders not followers.
Higher education has defined emerging India, but, equally, its failures threaten to imperil future growth.
In the rush for profit over excellence, 80% of India’s engineering graduates are deemed unemployable without additional training. This crisis found an echo last week when the All India Council of Technical Education, the regulatory authority for technical and engineering institutions, said there could be a moratorium in some states on new institutions by 2014. Across India, as many as 65 business management colleges have announced closures due to declining demand, reports the University World News. Some-privately run colleges have done well, but India’s future rests with public institutions.
So, it seems sensible that the government increased funding for higher education 900% between 2007 and 2012, with the bulk of the money going to IITs and IIMs. There will be big hikes in the coming budget. The problem is that these institutions need to do more — intellectually and financially — to compete with the world’s best at a time when the India story is faltering. Many IITs have attracted serious money from their alumni. Now, the government must cede control, so they can ring in sweeping intellectual changes.
Free their minds, and the rest will follow.
The views expressed by the author are personal