To achieve long-term growth and leadership in a knowledge economy, it is very important to support new knowledge creation. This can be achieved by scaling up research output of all educational institutions.
India's research output is woefully small and if we consider only the engineering disciplines, it does not even compare favourably with small Asian technology happening countries like Taiwan or Korea. Typically research output comparisons between countries (or even institutions) are based on quantum of publications in quality journals and conferences as well as number of patents filed. There is one more measure that is significant and in some sense captures both the amount of ongoing research activities as well as potential for research in future and that is the output of PhDs in a given discipline. This is because the world over almost all serious research today is carried out by PhDs. This is true for universities, government research laboratories as well as industrial R&D labs.
Some steps are required to scale up the number of PhDs produced. To reiterate, there are multiple objectives linked to this effort...
Support new knowledge creation for sustaining long-term growth and leadership.
Generate manpower for industry to enable them to move up the value chain.
To produce better trained faculty that is necessary for the growth of quality education.
The last objective has a multiplicative effect as any increase in qualified faculty would generate better trained students at all levels. Currently only a handful of institutions produce any significant number of PhDs in engineering and this does not add up to even 500 per year. For any scaling up effort to be successful, it has to expand the number of institutions engaged in research as well as the student pool from which to draw talent for PhDs. There are three specific steps to promote expansion of PhD research:
Identify and support PhD students directly: The world over, PhD research in universities is supported by the public bodies. This support, available through a competitive mechanism, includes grants for student scholarships as well as research equipment and operating expenditure. We see the same approach being adopted in India. Unfortunately, this approach cannot expand the base of institutions engaged in research as very few institutions have the faculty with expertise to participate in this process. An alternate approach to kickstart PhD research in newer institutions would be to identify a large number of meritorious students through a common examination (say GATE) and provide them an attractive scholarship as well as a research grant. Allow host institutions to top up their scholarship against limited participation in their teaching activities.
Support PhD students from abroad: Major success of US higher education has been its ability to attract quality foreign students for PhD. Today an opportunity exists for India to reach out and get talented students from the developing world. This is possible only if we can support their tuition and living expenses and perhaps a work permit for five years after their graduation. Our top institutions already have the infrastructure and visibility to attract students from the developing world and this should be tapped to increase the pool of students.
Promote employment of PhD graduates: Finally, a sustainable growth in PhD enrolment is possible only if the PhD applicants see attractive career opportunities on graduation. With few openings in industry and teaching careers in most of the institutions not being attractive, PhD in India has always been a poor choice for graduates with other options. On the positive side, industry scene is changing both due to entry of multinationals as well as Indian industry moving up the value chain. This is a good time to publicise and promote the career opportunities that are emerging for PhD graduates. Two specific incentives by the government can help. Any PhD graduate making a decision to teach in one of the newer institutions can be provided a substantial research grant to initiate research.
Conclusion: Proactive steps can create the right environment for scaling the number of PhDs.