Friday, October 28, 2005


The IISER fiasco: don’t let it be a missed opportunity

The IISER fiasco: don’t let it be a missed opportunity

Priyadarsan Patra
Portland, OR.
October 2005.

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Second Inaugural Address, 1937.

Much has been said about the fairness, culpability and the promises about establishing a National Institute of Science in Orissa. From a different perspective, I would argue that such an institute is critical to the development and international competitiveness of the region and the nation as a whole. A World Bank report says: Tertiary (read higher) education is more than the capstone of the traditional education pyramid; it is a critical pillar of human development worldwide. In today’s lifelong-learning framework, tertiary education provides not only the high-level skills necessary for every labor market but also the training essential for teachers, doctors, nurses, civil servants, engineers, humanists, entrepreneurs, scientists, social scientists, and myriad personnel. “It is these trained individuals who develop the capacity and analytical skills that drive local economies, support civil society, teach children, lead effective governments, and make important decisions which affect entire societies. Universities are clearly a key part of all tertiary systems, but the diverse and growing set of public and private tertiary institutions in every country—colleges, technical training institutes, community colleges, nursing schools, research laboratories, centers of excellence, distance learning centers and many more—forms a network of institutions that support the production of the higher-order capacity necessary for development.”

The state of Orissa is one of the most economically disadvantaged states in India. Research carried out by a joint team from PRAXIS – Institute for Participatory Practices and Action Aid, Bhubaneshwar and supported by DFID, profiles some of complex inter-linkages between subsistence agriculture, drought, land alienation, indebtedness and migration in Orissa. In another study, speaking of the first Human Development Report of India, T.K. Rajalakshmi says, “One very important indicator that reflects the state of economic well-being is per capita consumption expenditure. It is well accepted that the distribution of consumption expenditure between food and non-food items reflects the economic well-being of the population. Poor households are expected to spend substantially on food items as against non-food items…While there has been some decline in this category, in Assam, Bihar and Orissa, the share of food items out of the total expenditure remained rather high.” Orissa is no doubt a major state interms of population and size, and the abundance of natural resources, yet, the table below shows a glaring disparity in its human capital and ecomic state of development. The market economy of today transforms a large nation such as ours (India) into a true microcosm of the globe, where each region must compete and fend for itself – a country within a larger country -- except that a lot of fiduciary, regulatory control and power is concentrated in and arbitrated by the Central Government. Hence, equity and thoughtful strategy is every so important for a balanced, sustained, and satisfying growth of the human capital.

Human Development Index Value 2001 (calculated only for fifteen major states)
Human Development Index Rank 2001 (out of 15)

Human Development Index Value 1991
Human Development Index Rank (out of 32)

Human Poverty Index 1991
Human Poverty Index Rank (out of 32)

Gender Disparity Index Value 1991
Gender Disparity Index Rank (out of 32)

Institutes of higher education have a few primary and inter-related purposes, such as (a) To meet the learning needs and aspirations of individuals through the development of their intellectual abilities and aptitudes. Higher education equips individuals to make the best use of their talents and of the opportunities offered by society for self-fulfilment. (b) To provide the labour market, in a knowledge-driven and knowledge-dependent society, with the high-level competencies and expertise necessary for the growth and prosperity of a modern economy, starting at the regional on to the national level; to teach and train people to be successful in entering the learned professions, or to pursue vocations in administration, trade, industry and the arts, etc.
The perception of the growing importance of institutions of higher education and research means that economic development policy-makers are increasingly attempting to draw universities and colleges into their strategies. Research lays the long-term foundations for innovation, which is central to improved growth, productivity and quality of life. This applies not just to scientific and technical knowledge. Research in the social sciences, and in the arts and humanities can also benefit the economy – for example, in tourism, social and economic trends, design, law, and the performing arts – not to speak of enriching our cultural enrichment. There are certain native products, flora and fauna, regional skills and expertise that need be leveraged by a geographically close and locally identifiable instiute of research excellence.

There are many different ways an institute of higher education and research can contribute: involvement in local and regional partnerships; links with local business and industry through targeted training and research consultancies; the establishment of research incubators, of science parks, of quasi autonomous R&D companies and the commercialisation of research via spin-off companies and patents; student placements in local businesses and the tying of student projects to the needs of businesses and local community groups; and through its wider role as part of a network of knowledge industries, a feature which itself is used in local and regional promotion to attract out-of-state and overseas inward investment.

A final thought: there is already strong evidence of socio-ecomic benefits of linkages though integration of a new institution of higher learning into a regional development strategy. Take for example the young University of Oulu in Finland which has become one of the best universities in all of the Nordic countries despite being located in a remote area close to the Arctic Circle. The rural region of Oulu has been transformed into a high-tech zone where a symbiosis exists among several winning companies such as Nokia, the science parks dedicated to applied research in electronics, medicine and biotechnology, and the 13,000-student university.

Constructing Knowledge Societies: New Challenges for Tertiary Education. A World Bank Report. 2002.
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