Research in Indian Universities: Needed, A Paradigm Shift

The system for ranking of universities adopted by the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) and the processes being followed by accreditation agencies like National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) and National Board of Accreditation (NBA) have ushered in a tendency in Indian universities to increase the number of publications by their faculty-members. Exhortations by the government and various regulatory bodies to get some of the leading universities ranked in the top bracket at the global level has given an additional stimulus to this proclivity. Globally, different ranking and rating agencies mainly assess the quality of research in a university by the number of publications attributed to its faculty. Further, faculty members have developed a tendency to have large number of publications to their credit that could demonstrate their academic genius. The managements encourage this trend because it adds to the standing of their respective institutions. Managements also use this as a criterion during recruitment of faculty. Faculty-members who focus more on teaching-learning and less on publications generally find themselves being left out of the limelight. Thus, the mantra to success that has emerged for the faculty is ‘publish or perish’.  The rewards for excellence in teaching are overshadowed by the number of publications in the name of research. Though the publications have their own value and need to be recognised the question that begs an answer is, “Are the publications a true measure of quality of research in a university?” In fact, the emphasis on number of papers published has had an adverse effect on the quality of scholarship and research that can benefit the society and the country.

Consequences of Excessive Stress on Publications

 Undue importance accorded by universities, regulatory bodies and ranking agencies to number of publications has resulted in many undesirable practices making inroads into the system. There has been a sudden spurt in the number of predatory journals that publish papers after charging a fee from the authors. There are loopholes even in the system of citation-index being followed in academia. Invariably, authors manipulate the citations – they either resort to self-citations or resort to quid pro quo where authors form a cartel to cite from each other’s publications. That becomes evident from the numbers of citations immediately after publication of a paper and which declines rapidly thereafter. Unfortunately, a trend has emerged wherein the authors resort to publications mainly to improve their own standing and the managements and senior academic leaders encourage that because it bolsters the image of the university. There are also instances where, apart from the actual author, names of ‘ghost’ authors are added as co-authors basically to ensure undue benefit to colleagues or seniors. Numerous other unethical practices like plagiarism are also followed that do not bode well for the future of academia.

That is not to say that publications are of no value to academia. In fact, publications are vital for the growth of knowledge and also career progression of researchers. These need to be encouraged. The present state of affairs owes its origin to the common dictum ‘demand and supply’. Regulators, accreditation and rating agencies, university-managements and senior academic leaders demand more publications and that has shaped the response of the scholars and faculty. Publications are just one part of research activities of a university.

Role of a University. Traditionally, a university is expected to carry out three interlocking missions: teaching, research, and social engagement. It follows that an important role of a university is to promote knowledge-creation and to engage in research that benefits society. An argument is invariably put forward that it is difficult to realistically measure the impact of the research carried out by a university and its benefit to the society. It is also argued that the number of publications provides a good indicator of the quality of research. A question therefore arises, “Should we value what we measure or should we measure what is of value?” It seems that it is the lack of will to measure what is of value that has resulted in the present state of affairs. Considering the advancements in technology, and if there is a will, it should not be difficult to devise a reliable model to measure the level of excellence of research in a university. However, it would require financial resources and time to develop a suitable matrix. Majority of global ranking agencies are commercial organisations and focus on what sells. Improvement in quality of research does not figure high in their order of priorities. There are some ranking agencies with their roots in academia. But to conserve scarce financial resources, avoid criticism of any new model that may be developed and competitive compulsions force them to follow the popular trend.

A suggested Way Forward

 It is evident that in their quest for higher ratings and rankings the universities have lost sight of their main role of knowledge-creation and service to society. Meaningful research is a capital intensive and time-consuming process. There are also risks involved and positive outcomes from investments in research are generally not assured because research projects may not always produce desired results. But, even if unsuccessful, these may add to the body of knowledge, facilitate in building research capacity and that can contribute to success in subsequent projects. Thus, a university that aspires to emerge as an institution-with-a-difference, would frame strategies to promote local and regional socioeconomic development. There are universities in India, though minuscule in number, that are engaged in application-oriented research. But a vast majority of universities need to make serious efforts in this direction.

Research Culture. The main purpose of research is to inquire and investigate, inform action, to prove a theory, and contribute to developing knowledge in a field of study for the betterment of life on this planet. That can happen only if a university creates an environment of research culture. It implies manifestation of a spirit of inquiry with proclivity to ask questions, to interrogate and to explore new ideas in an environment that is free of fear or favour, and is governed by a sound and ethical value system where the ultimate goal is germination of ideas that create and disseminate new knowledge resulting in benefit to society. It is intricately linked to the teaching-learning process in a university and that should be based on learning by curiosity, problem solving and developing an inquisitive mind. A university would need to develop a strategy that developes a healthy research culture, provides direction, and identifies niche domains for research. In essence, a university needs to establish robust support systems that can motivate and nurture a positive research environment.

SWOT Analysis. Since research is a capital intensive and time consuming activity, a university would do well to carry out a SWOT analysis to identify the domains to focus for research. These would depend on its intellectual strengths and availability of resources. It would help in evolving the strategy for research and provide direction to research activities in the university.

Organisation of Research. The vision and mission of a university should clearly reflect its approach toward research and it should work to bring about a singularity of purpose among its faculty members and students to serve this important academic role. One or more research centres, under the leadership of experienced academician(s) or professionals, should be established. These centres should facilitate creation of culture of research that encourages creativity, a sense of exploration, and an urge to inquire and interrogate. An important function of these centres should be to attract  research funds from the governments, local industries, other research institutions, and contributions from communities and other like-minded social organisations. Generally major technology-oriented industries tend to gravitate toward existing centres of knowledge-creation with established credentials. However, universities planning to make a beginning may interact with small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that are generally locally rooted, and rely on regional systems of innovation that are willing to collaborate. Universities could interact to ascertain the challenges faced by these SMEs and focus on their specific needs. For example, a region may be a hub for SMEs engaged in manufacturing sports goods and the university could take up projects either to improve existing processes, products or design altogether new products. Similarly, universities could collaborate with local communities, identify their needs and initiate projects to ameliorate the challenges being faced. For example, a region could be facing a challenge of acute shortage of water. A university could study the problem and not only suggest solutions but also participate to facilitate success of the project. Such joint ventures with SMEs and local communities could result in projects being sponsored and provide a take-off point for meaningful research. An advisory board comprising distinguished academicians, from within or outside the university, and professional practitioners could be formed that can advise and also review the progress of research activities. Head of the research centre should be responsible for: –

  • Fund-raising for research activities.
  • Based on the research strategy outlined by the university, prepare and implement a plan for research activities in the university.
  • Invite and approve proposals for research projects.
  • Arrange for and provide resources for research projects.
  • Decide on the approach – interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary or transdisciplinary – for pursuing each project.
  • Organise regular discussions – both formal and informal – and these should form an important function of the research centre because of their value in knowledge-sharing.
  • Coordinate research activities.
  • Facilitate dissemination of research findings through journals and industry-related publications.
  • Work closely with local and regional SMEs and local communities to identify potential research projects.

Faculty Re-orientation. A major challenge being faced by Indian universities is that majority of members of faculty are products of examination-centric system, have not developed a habit of systematic reading, have not been exposed to the process of self-learning, are content with the knowledge of their respective domains and the concept of multidisciplinary knowledge is alien to them. However, as shown by the results achieved by ISRO, the faculty-members could be groomed to become good researchers. A well-thought and structured plan needs to be launched to re-orient the outlook of the faculty. They should be encouraged to ask questions, inspired to read, be curious, investigate, find solutions to problems and interact with faculty-members of other departments. Another major challenge is that majority of faculty-members excel in theoretical knowledge and possess limited practical expertise. Apart from devoting efforts in-house, they could be sponsored to work with local industries during vacations. Personnel from local industries could be recruited to provide practical training to the faculty and students. That may also require investments to re-equip the laboratories. Further, the curriculum could be redesigned wherein creativity should be the hallmark of experiments performed by students in the laboratories. At present, practical training in laboratories is designed merely to validate theoretical concepts learnt in the classrooms. Faculty-members should be assigned projects to design practical exercises to be undertaken in laboratories that nurture creativity. It may be noted that SMEs and local communities would provide funds and sponsor projects only if they perceive some positive outcome. In addition to developing infrastructure a university should invest in human capital and hire senior professors – with a background of application-oriented research – to act as mentors to junior faculty. That is not an easy task and the management may have to make a very serious and determined effort in this direction. The role of mentor-professors should be to: –

  • Guide and promote reading habit among faculty. Faculty should be exposed to the technique of effective reading and the mentor should help in developing a plan for their reading. In fact, reading habit should be inculcated even among students right from their first year in the university.
  • Guide the faculty to be inquisitive and adopt the technique of learning by curiosity. Arouse a sense of passion to learn and achieve positive outcomes.
  • Develop their critical thinking skills and analytical intelligence. Help them study a problem and arrive at the driving question and associated questions for the project. It involves developing reasoning capabilities. This can be achieved only if the faculty develops the skills to pay attention to the details and also possesses the capability to break-up a problem in to smaller components and study those.
  • Help faculty in problem solving techniques and guide them to find solutions to the driving questions and associated questions.
  • Emphasise the importance of creativity and working on practical aspects of solving a problem.
  • Promote the concepts of collaboration and knowledge-sharing.
  • Develop communication skills and help the faculty in articulating their research findings.
  • Expose the faculty to the art of conducting discussions in small and large groups, invite suggestions, evaluate those and implement, if found useful.
  • Emphasise intellectual courage that implies desire to explore difficult tasks, to ask questions with a motive to constantly strive to gain truthful understanding of a problem, to accept the risk of error and failure, welcome criticism and feedback.
  • Encourage faculty to develop resilience, face challenges and endure difficult working conditions.
  • Help faculty in developing organisational skills and managing time and other resources.
  • Most importantly, develop a desire to work on practical problems and contribute to the society.


Indian economy is on an upward curve and the country has dreams of emerging as a major power in the global arena. To realise those aspirations, the country’s universities need to play their assigned role as institutions that are engaged in knowledge-creation. Managements, senior academic leaders and faculty members have to shoulder this onerous responsibility. A major paradigm shift is required in the way research is being carried out in Indian universities. Our policy planners need to respond to a question: “Do we need some universities in the global top bracket based on paper-publications or do we need universities that can contribute meaningfully to the development of the country?”

2 thoughts on “Research in Indian Universities: Needed, A Paradigm Shift”
  1. Reading Habit must be developed from LKG onwards. Indians and Indo-Canadians do not do well in universities as they do not read.
    Neither the students nor the faculty are inquisitive as they do Cut-Copy-Paste without even giving the source. It is considered plagiarism in developed countries. In a country where the professors and VCs have obtained their PhD by plagiarism – In the Indian Army, all our courses are examples of plagiarism – Pinks &Links – there is no place for original ideas.
    Critical thinking cannot take place in a rot environment.
    Problem solving techniques are thrown out of Military Corses window as it is all about scoring marks and grades.
    Collaboration and knowledge sharing is never there. In the Army courses, the instructors hide knowledge so that they can pose difficult questions to the students in exams.
    Communication skills are least developed or encouraged. In Canada, presentations begin from Grade 1.
    Intellectual courage is lacking in the faculty – why speak of students.
    The greatest skill required for a high-school/ university student in Canada is time management. Ability to submit their assignments on time – even if it is not up to the standard which one presumed. It will fetch some marks than getting a Zero.
    Desire to work on practical problems can set in only when the faculty is competent and students are not grading/ mark oriented.

    1. We are all a product of the old system. Why blame only the faculty? Aim of writing this blog was to start trying to improve. It is going to be a difficult task. But a beginning has to be made.

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