interview:
We should develop our own rating system; Indian universities are omitted from several categories by foreign agencies
15 Jan 2013

Padmashree Prof. Sukhadeo Thorat is the present Chairman of ICSSR. Prior to joining ICSSR, he served as the Chairman of UGC from 2006 to 2011. He is also a faculty member of Jawaharlal Nehru University since 1980 and has been a visiting faculty at Department of Economics, Iowa State University, AMES, USA. He has also served as founding Director, Indian Institute of Dalit Studies.

Prof. Thorat’s areas of research include Agricultural Development, Rural Poverty, Institution and Economic Growth, Problems of Marginalized Groups, Economics of Caste System, Caste Discrimination and Poverty, Human Development and Human Rights Issue. Prof. Thorat has published 21 books and has published and presented 81 papers in various national and international journals.

He received Padamshree award from the Government of India in 2008 and has been awarded Vidyalankara (Lifetime Achievement Award) by Purbanchal Academy of Oriental Studies in association with Ministry of HRD, Government of India in 2008.

In an Exclusive interview with India Education Review, Prof. Thorat shares his experience of being in the education sector besides discussing various issues pertaining to the higher education sector.

Q. You have been head of UGC, now heading ICSSR; have been associated with JNU as professor for long time. Which job you consider as the most challenging one?

Sukhdeo Thorat: The most challenging one was the post of Chairman of UGC (University Grants Commission) which I held for five year from 2006 to 2011, as before this I had not occupied any top post in any organisation before. It also coincided with beginning of 11th Five Year Plan (FYP); as a result the UGC was required to develop the approach and strategy for higher education and that was really a great challenge. The term also coincided with sixth pay commission implementation for teachers.

While dealing with the approach for 11th FYP, I followed an academic approach and I undertook seven studies about the status of higher education in the country.  I did this, as we were required to develop a report on 11th FYP and 90 per cent of higher education is with UGC and there was no substantial material around at that time on higher education. So, we sponsored seven studies and these seven studies brought out the status of higher education in the country and it formed the resource material for developing the approach paper for 11th FYP.

Q. What was the outcome of the study?

Sukhdeo Thorat: The studies gave the status of higher education and various problems before it, and the most important thing that came out was that we came to know about the status of enrolment ratio and at time it was 10 per cent. It was very low as many of the developing countries were having GER of 30-35 per cent at that time and for developed nations it was more that 50 per cent. We also came to know that the enrolment ratio in rural areas was very low in comparison to urban areas; it was low in poor classes in comparison to economically better of classes, low among girls compared to boys, etc. 

It was during this time higher education was put in the priority list of the government and the Prime Minister’s office set up National Knowledge Commission under the chairmanship of Sam Pitorda.

During this period UGC was invited through the Education Ministry by the Prime Minister to give a presentation of the vision for Higher Education the 11th FYP that was a big thing. We gave the presentation before the PM and he understood whole thing and he really made serious efforts to improve the higher education sector. In 10th plan the allocation was 4,000 crores while in 11th plan it rose up to 47,000 crores, so, higher education was given a major boost. On that very day of our presentation, in the evening PM declared establishment of 37 central universities and 374 model colleges for educationally backward districts.

Later on when we prepared the 11th plan there was huge expansion, 15 central universities were set up, and 15 were in pipeline, 7 IITs, 7 IIMs, 1,000 polytechnics along with focus on improving the enrolment ratio. Under this we also undertook several academic reforms and introduced semester system, grading system, etc were some of the major initiatives were taken during that period of time. Last was the pay hike for the teachers, I am happy that I was part of this whole exercise and brought higher education in the top priority.   

Q. How you look at the creation of NCHER which would be above UGC, AICTE, ICSSR. Is it a right move?

Sukhdeo Thorat: The Bill is still in the Parliament and it’s not appropriate to comment about it.

Q. The Parliamentary committee has rejected creation of such a body, your comment?

Sukhdeo Thorat: I am not aware of it if such a thing has happened, UGC gave its suggestions regarding this long time back.

Q. Do you think it is a good move to create body like NCHER for country like India is which is vast and too diverse?

Sukhdeo Thorat: The issue was raised long time that higher education in India is highly fragmented; there are 15-16 councils. This issue was identified by Prof. Yashpal, this was an attempt to have a unified education body, there are different ways of dealing with it, but the issue is genuine. In various countries across the world, they have a unified mechanism where the different councils work together, like UK, Netherland. I think the Ministry is dealing with this problem and the issue will be addressed.

Q. Ho far ICSSR has been successful in promoting social sciences research in India, according to you?

Sukhdeo Thorat:  Since I joined ICSSR, I realised that it was hugely underfunded; the total allocation to ICSSR was only Rs. 36 crores, in 2010-11. It was during the time I joined, MHRD has set up committee to review the functioning of ICSSR and they made some positive recommendations. One of their recommendations was that social sciences research was hugely underfunded, and they recommended for 21 times increase in the allocation of fund. The academic quality suffers because of lack of funding for research, Ministry has taken a positive initiative and budget was increased to 400 crores which was later reduced to 100 crores.

I believe that neglecting social sciences research is problematic, because research helps us to understand the reality of society and once you understand the problem you can develop policies. Since, we are underfunding the research; it is focused on certain areas only.

Q. How this can be improved upon?

 Sukhdeo Thorat: The Ministry has taken several initiatives, as soon as I joined ICSSR, organised an international conference. During that conference the then Minister, Kapil Sibal made five announcements like, the most important one was setting up of a chair and giving ten awards in social sciences annually which we will be beginning now. We are also trying to increase the collaboration with other countries. We are trying to improve the administration of ICSSR, we have appointed five advisors. We are also working on collaboration with various ministries and various councils to raise funding for the social sciences sector.       

Q. According to you. Where Indian researchers are lacking in making a mark in the international arena?

Sukhdeo Thorat:  The most important problem is the underfunding on social sciences in India. If you look at the number of research publications, in 1995 our number of publications was higher than China and Brazil, in 2007 China has more publications than us. The problem is the publications is less, it covers less areas.

On quality front we are good, we are better than China, maybe because of advantage in language, still the quality has to improve. There are regional imbalances as most of research comes from as most of our research comes from cities and larger areas remain excluded.      

Q. How you look at your journey as an academician vis-a-vis a researcher?

 Sukhdeo Thorat: The journey I would say was not planned, I come from a very small village, learnt regional language did my graduation and post graduation from small town and took up a job there, like any common man. But, one of my teachers brought me to JNU and here I was exposed to rigorous method of research. Later I went to US to teach and it exposed me to study the problem of discriminated groups.

It has been a very exciting journey as I never expected that I will remain deeply rooted with research, I also set up an institute, Indian Institute of Dalit studies.

The thing that kept me motivated was the problem of marginalised group and I learnt a lot by doing, trying and I would say it has been a great journey as a researcher so far.

Q. You have taught at foreign as well as Indian institutions, what are the basic differences in teaching and learning at both the places?

Sukhdeo Thorat: I would like to share an example, if you look at JNU, it is one of the best institutions close to many of the foreign institutions and the most important feature of JNU is freedom. They have semester system, it puts lot of pressure on students but at the same time they have grading system of examinations, they have seminars and other such things which give lot of exposure to explore him. Teachers have the freedom to introduce courses the way they like with general approval of the board of students. So, I think this freedom to the students and the teachers helps them experiment, innovate, these are the features you will find in Oxford and Harvard.

It is lacking in most of the universities in India, we need to bring in such system in most of our institutions, allowing students to develop understanding of their own.

Q. You compared JNU with Harvard; still none of the Indian institutions are able to make it to the top 200 institutions in the world?

Sukhdeo Thorat: There is problem there, because the indicators that these agencies take they may not satisfy the way we work here. As per an excellent article written by Prof. Anandakrishna Indian universities are omitted from several categories by these rating agencies. For an example they take universities which have undergraduate programmes, JNU doesn’t have an undergraduate programme so it will not figure in ranking. We should develop our own indicators of assessing excellence, NAAC is developing a methodology which will take care of our own requirement.

But, quality is an issue as it is sinking in large number of universities, we need to address this issue. But, measuring the quality by those international standards which do not confirm with us then they are not fit for us. There are number of problem with the quality of higher education in this country and the most important problem that we allowed to crop up was the scarcity of faculty. This is a major problem at our universities and colleges, particularly in public universities. This is because many state governments put ban on recruitment of faculties in 80s and 90s and started teaching through temporary teachers, outsourced teachers. This was wrong, it should not have happened, you cannot restrict teachers and say that the quality of teaching is bad.

During my tenure as the UGC Chairman, the MHRD constituted a committee to increase the number of faculty as well as wrote to all the state governments to appoint teachers by lifting the ban and now majority of states have lifted the ban.   

Q. Do you think that the University Grants Commission has been able to live up to the expectations for which it was created?

Sukhdeo Thorat: I think the UGC has done whatever it could do in its limited scope very responsibly, as per my experience grant given by UGC is the only grant that many of the universities receive. It is true that the centrally run institutions get 100 per cent grant from UGC but the state universities and colleges do receive grant from UGC and it really helps them sustain. Though it is true that the grant is less but since 11th plan it has also increased.

The mandates of UGC are to co-ordinate and maintain the quality of higher education, UGC has done that by laying down the rules and regulations for appointing and career advancement of teachers. To ensure quality it has introduced NAAC, to the extent the UGC could do it because higher education is also in the concurrent list and state has its own liberty.  

My feeling is, UGC has performed its role within its limitations both in-terms funding and maintain the quality.

Q. There is question against NAAC that takes too long to accredit any institution and there is biasness, how you look at it?

Sukhdeo Thorat: NAAC is doing a good work and they have improved their methodology, they have developed a very cautious and systematic methodology using methodology of other countries. When UGC made NAAC mandatory, they were ready for it and they were also ready to accredit private institutions.

Q. how you look at the entry of foreign higher education institutions in India, will it improve the quality of education being imparted here?

Sukhdeo Thorat: One of the important ways is the collaboration between Indian and foreign institutions should grow, large numbers of Indian institutions in India have collaboration with foreign institutions. These collaborations are helping the institutions through visit, exchange of faculty, not for research but for learning from each other teaching method, curriculum development.

But for collaboration you require funding and our universities do not have funds, I would suggest that UGC should give special grant of maybe one crore, two crore or three crore, to be exclusive used for collaboration. It will strengthen our higher education system, so, I think the partnership and collaboration is one of the important ways to improve the quality.

Q. what are your future plans for ICSSR?

Sukhdeo Thorat: I trying to improve the functioning of ICSSR, to raise the funding for research so that the researchers get enough fund. I am trying to do this from various sources like from MHRD, through international collaborations, etc. the committee formed to review the functioning of ICSSR  has suggested various measures and the ministry is various about it and it is being done. The fellowship amount has been increased and now it is at par with UGC, the number of fellowships has also increased earlier it was 155 but now it has increased to more than 450 fellowships.

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Dr.S.Thirunavukkarasu
19 Jan 2013

Dr.Thorat's interview gave a clear picture of the Indian higher education system. As a Chairman of UGC he brought a lot of changes in the higher education system of our country. Indian educational system is fast improving and we will continue to do well in the future.
Dr.Thorat is always a model to some of the people like me. We continue to do something in economics even though we hail from remote village and that too born to illiterate parents. Constraints are not permanent barriers to growth.