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Universities and Archives

If we do not wake up and invest more in our universities, not just in terms of money but new innovative ideas for organizing research and teaching, the Indian university system instead of being an archive of knowledge will run the risk of becoming material meant for the archives, writes Kaushik Basu.
None | By The visible hand | Kaushik Basu
UPDATED ON JUL 05, 2008 11:54 PM IST

What the universities teach us at the frontiers of knowledge have, at one level, little connection with the success of commerce in a nation. Yet, the fact that there is no successful and prosperous nation without a great university system cannot be a matter of spurious correlation. Most nations have, through the ages, had their share of business people and commercial entrepreneurs. And indeed such people have made money and accumulated wealth. But nations without a larger interest in science, research and culture tend to succumb to outside aggression, stagnate and flounder.

The rise of Florence in the 15th century had much to do with the great business skills of the Medici family. But central Italy flowered into one of the greatest states in the world because the Medicis and the rulers of Florence had a huge interest also in the sciences and the arts. One of the ambitions of the Florentine rich of that time was to be the archive of the world's greatest ideas; and emissaries were sent out to ancient civilizations to collect original books and manuscripts. Soon Florence had gathered in one place the original books of Plato and Aristotle, the plays of Sophocles, the medical writings of Hippocrates and Galen and a large number of contemporary works. Some would argue that this deliberate effort to push higher learning was the cornerstone of the renaissance that Italy subsequently witnessed.

Tenuous though the link may seem, it is arguable that Bangalore owes a part of its economic success to the Indian Institute of Science. The Institute was founded by J. N. Tata in 1909, and, through subsequent nurture by government and outstanding individuals, it has become the nation’s premier institute of fundamental research. Many would argue that this contributed to an ‘atmosphere’ of innovation and enlightened citizenry which were critical to Bangalore’s commercial take-off.

Political scientists talk of the need for a nation to have a "strategic vision." In this world of complex global interaction, competition and intrigue, one needs to debate and reason through such a strategic vision. As one astute scholar of Indian polity observed, India has not done this seriously since the time of the Arthasastra. It is true that statecraft is neither science nor art, but it belongs to the same category of thought and reason and interest in matters that may not have an immediate material benefit but is of long-run, collective interest.

Most businessmen, even the ones most talented in commerce, are not like the enlightened advocates of higher learning mentioned above. You do not have to do archival research to see this. It should be enough to just look around at our business people. It is not surprising that, despite so much commercial talent, India has, historically, done so poorly as a nation.

I like to believe this is changing. Though one can still count the number on one hand, there are, in recent times, some business leaders who have a larger vision for the country. Unfortunately, where India is beginning to flounder is in its university system.

In the modern world, the most important vehicle of pure science and the liberal arts is the university. Much of India’s recent economic surge we owe to the nurturing of the universities and institutes of higher education in the first half of the twentieth century and the sixties and seventies.

India continues to do well in the production of engineers and managers. Each year the country produces 350,000 engineers, twice the number produced by the United States. Where the country had a huge head start but is now doing poorly is in the pure sciences, mathematics, literature, abstract social science. And this is the domain of the university. This is at first sight puzzling, given that our universities continue to function pretty much the way they did in the mid-twentieth century. But, ironically, that is the reason. The world is moving on, whereas India has held on to the old ways.

The most dramatic systemic change that one can see is happening in China. The Chinese government suddenly realised that if China wants to prosper and play a major global role in the long run, then it needs a powerful system of research and higher education. And from the organization of the university, methods of financing, and incentives for research, to the development of the physical infrastructure, one can see the big changes that are occurring in China. Not surprisingly, despite a clear lead even ten or twenty years ago, India now is beginning to lag behind China in most indicators of higher education.

If we do not wake up and invest more in our universities, not just in terms of money but new innovative ideas for organizing research and teaching, the Indian university system instead of being an archive of knowledge will run the risk of becoming material meant for the archives.

Kaushik Basu is C. Marks Professor and Chairman of the Department of Economics, Cornell University.

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