Is Life Elsewhere?

At its best a University is meant to prepare one for a life in the real world. LIFE in the outside world, so to speak. But, and not as Milan Kundera put it in his brilliantly titled novel, life is also not really elsewhere, even if the University provides only a transitory environment for most. I’ve been mulling over this post for a while now, these thoughts prompted by a number of things that happen from time to time on the campus.

And in the classroom. I was mildly (to put it mildly) irritated some months ago when two students asked for permission to miss a class since it clashed with an entrance or qualifying examination for some other institution. Like there was a destination that was demonstrably more important than here, which was just a stepping stone in any case… which more than kind of devalued the present in favour of an imagined future.  But maybe I was being unnecessarily touchy.

The issue continues to bother me though- why do many of our students, and typically the more promising ones, not consider the UoH as a serious destination for research. Better facilities elsewhere is one reason, of course, but there is something more to it. Over the years I have seen a variety of students who intend to pursue further studies choose destinations that are almost surely not as good, and also seen them exchange the familiar for the alien, exchange the possibility of good mentorship for the probably indifferent…  But then, I have also seen them perform well enough later, so this is also somewhat of a sense of regret of “what might have been”.

Nevertheless, the question of why Indians seem to do better abroad is one that has been asked often enough, and reasons range from the obvious to the banal. A typical one being that “India’s biggest problem is its mindset. India still views itself as a third world country or less harshly, a “developing” one.”  Comparing our (presumed) national characteristics with those of others is an old practice: Rabindranath Tagore, for instance, when talking of the Japanese aesthetic felt that in Japan, there was a certain sense of order, discipline and unruffledness he missed in India, where people wore themselves out with disorder, effusiveness and over-reaction [as cited in K G Subramanyan’s article on RT and modern Indian Art].

So is there something more to it than better facilities and infrastructure that attracts the aspiring student to more developed (or richer) countries? Is life elsewhere? A colleague recently wrote (and I am extracting from his mail) on what the main differences were. This was about the attitudes of people to the following principles of life:

  1. Ethics, as basic principles.
  2. Integrity.
  3. Responsibility.
  4. The respect for Laws and Regulations.
  5. The respect from majority of citizens by right.
  6. The love for work.
  7. The effort to save and invest.
  8. The will to be productive.
  9. Punctuality.

The differences, that analysis asserts, arise essentially from the proportion of the population that actually follows these principles and not from some other national characteristic, intrinsic superiority or natural advantages that these nations might possess.

Surely these principles are neither so profound to enunciate, nor are they that difficult to follow in a society. And yet…


15 thoughts on “Is Life Elsewhere?

  1. Lee Smolin, in his interesting and teasing book, “The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science and What Comes Next” (Penguin/Allen Lane, 2006) was so troubled with the failure of the grand unified theory (before the discovery (?) of the elusive ‘God particle’ by Large Hadron Collider experiment) he summed up that: “Each decade from the 1780s to the 1970s saw a major advance in our knowledge of the foundations of physics, and in each advance, theory complimented experiment, but since the end of the 1970s there has not been a single genuine breakthrough in our understanding of elementary-particle physics” (p.66). The landed up with “perhaps there is something wrong with the way we are going about trying to make a revolution in physics” (308).

    The reason for looking towards distant lands and even doing very well there and not considering “our” institutions is not so much due to inherited greatness of those distant ‘stars’ but because, to rephrase Lee, “perhaps there is something wrong with the way we are going about trying to make our rudderless and unprofessional educational institutions to make a revolution in education and research.” I can quote thousands of examples of how non-professional and non-committed are our academics in our own university. Perhaps we need …?

  2. This resonates. Deeply. A colleague and I have just been trying to understand why it is so hard for us to get students to find enjoyment in learning, to get involved and engaged during classes. So few students come to class having read the materials and therefore are not really prepared to get into a serious discussion of the topic at hand. The same students, when they go abroad for a higher degree, are willing to put in hours to keep up with the class and will even confess to enjoying the hard work. The “principles” of life that you mention would seem to be universally held (in some theoretical realm) but are so hard to internalise. Some days I wonder if we will ever get there… to that “elsewhere”.

    • Indian society places no premium on learning and knowledge. How many scientists in the country are known because of their work?. Most of the scientists attract lime light and public attention because of the position they hold. It is a pity since India was known for its capacity to think in an earlier era, a capacity which we seem to have lost. Students in India only reflect that reality.

  3. As a student who actively tried to find a way to move on to the proverbial greener pastures I would say the regular “better infrastructure and facilities and promise of a better life” is not the entire ( to me not even the most important) reason. It is the hope that people would value their life and work more than they care to share. In India even if our researchers are passionate ( which I am certain they are) they do not show that pride or wish to inspire. Everyone works in isolation and there is a deep sense if mistrust about everyone and a cavalier attitude. It is sad to say that approachability is severely lacking. As much as a student should put in the effort if it isn’t a two way receptive street it’s hard to want to work and live in an environment like that.

  4. PS: Some comments have appeared on FB and in mail to me. I am excerpting them here to share.

    A friend who teaches at Stanford says: I read your blog piece on life elsewhere and thought I might pass on an observation I have, for whatever it is worth. Many young Indian investigators are told and expect to be told what to do in carrying out research. At least in my lab and I think elsewhere at Stanford, young people are given more freedom to try new things and the exercise of that freedom is expected of them. I suggest that this might be an important difference.

    And this from a young friend: Sir, I think along with the infrastructure, better facilities and other reasons, the case of diversity also has a strong effect, which impacts the decision of students to choose universities abroad. In India we have some how failed to create such an environment, and it can be traced back to our policies and also the facilities/infra in comparison to the university abroad.When a student decides to acquire more knowledge in his/her chosen field, then they try to make sure that they get various perspectives of the problems they would be tackling and here the more diverse a program (in terms of students and professors from various countries and views) is, the more appealing it will be for the student. This is where Indian universities, in my views, lag.

    Which prompted another colleague from the US to add: your comment is interesting because India itself is considered to be one of the two most diverse regions in the entire world. Clearly the ingredients are here, but, as you say, the policies are not.

    One student, currently at the University writes: “One thing with us students here we tend to procrastinate anything and everything and here if we ask teachers for permission they tend to give in and give us a day more or something like that. From what I see in foreign universities, you are new to the place and they will be grading you on a regular basis and if you miss a submission you miss points or grades and that pressure to perform makes one do better outside is my opinion. And there can be many reasons like this”

    • Dear Sir,

      I admit your point, but I strongly believe, at least from my personal experience, and experiences of my friends, in our university for a motivated student (at any level) who wants to investigate a scientific problem that he thinks he can solve, we have faculty and infrastructure supporting him/her (may not be on war-footing, but “yes!” with an assurance is always given). No wonder there are students who got publications even below the M. Sc. level from our own university. In this case I strongly say we are no way lagging behind (in terms of infrastructure and facilities).

      I also remember you saying: as long as we have computers at our reach, we are global; connected to rest of the world in terms of science and research, meeting their standards. So the question: Where are we lagging behind? We are lagging in our curriculum, conduction and quality of courses, “Nurturing students towards self-thinking and questioning”-most important of all. As long as a student doesn’t think or design a problem or question on his own, s/he will remain a vegetable in scientific research, here in UoH or elsewhere. Kritika’s viewpoint also needs serious consideration. The same is the case with our own class: having a good understanding of the subjects, we are seriously lagging in the basic training (say programming or mathematics which are needed for a better grip of your lectures). This scenario probably causing a mistrust on Indian system of education among our students. Bottom line: In search of a challenging environment with the spirit of an athlete, a student is fleeing away to new lands. No wonder!

  5. In the current scenario I encourage the students to go abroad because a CV that says degree PhD/Postdoc from most Indian institutions ‘subconsciously’ influences the selectors.
    In one of the above posts there was a mention of ‘there is a deep sense of mistrust about everyone’. But this is required by law (may be a tradition we follow from our pre-independence label of incompetence). For one example look at our purchase procedure it expects us to be incompetent and clearly requires that we purchase the lowest quote unless one struggles (using up research and student interaction time) to convince that it is not that one is trying to cheat but it is the equipment that will do the job (From friends in other institutions in India I realize that our University is far more sensible in this regard).

  6. Integrity at workplace is a casualty and it’s a state secret in the case of a couple of servicing departments. Every time this issue is raised, politics of region, caste, proximity to some leaders etc overshadow implementation of rules that can fix such individuals.
    Responsibility: While I want to strongly believe that most of the university community is responsible, we seem to be slowly slipping into a state of privileges & rights. If not, there would be more people from the university wanting to participate in university affairs & effectively.
    The respect for Laws and Regulations.: Please read the para on Integrity.
    The love for work: Please read the feedback by Kritika Ramani.
    The will to be productive: This seems to be least on our list of priorities. We have a tendency to repeat exercises that are mostly standard operating procedures elsewhere! For example, there has been an attempt to automate the university administration for the last five years! Does it really take five long years to implement it? If my information is correct, at least 60% of our university staffers will retire by 2015. With a ban on recruitment of support staff by the UGC, wouldn’t it make sense to automate our administration? Why do students/ faculty/non-teaching staff have to keep running around with papers for admissions, registrations, clearances on leaves, projects etc? I will not repeat what Joby Joseph has already pointed out.
    Punctuality: The less said about it, the better!
    It can’t be the responsibility of one individual to set everything right!

  7. Dear Ram,

    There are is at least one reason which attracts students elsewhere. Going abroad opens them to a whole spectrum of enriching experience. This works for foreign students who come to us too. This cannot change.

    However, there is no gainsaying the fact that the training and professionalism inculcated by good universities abroad, is not duplicated here. This is not to say that individuals can’t or don’t surmount this.
    I’m speaking of averages. This can and must change. Places like UoH can do it. Best of luck.


  8. Like Joby, I also always encourage students to go abroad because their “prospects” improve with such a degree/post doc experience. Research students will take pride in their work and be inspiring, think and work independently, only if they are in that place because they want to be not when they are there because this is also another stepping stone. Maybe also if it is asked of them?

    Accepting at least that some of the points you have listed as the reasons why we fail to retain students, what can we do about it in the University of Hyderabad? Krithika says “approachability is severely lacking”: Read as we are not willing to listen to our students; if they do make suggestions/complaints, we do not act on them. Second, in the same vein as Vasuki, we seem to have only carrots dangling that everyone is scrambling for, with no stick for lack of integrity.

    My personal view on why Life is elsewhere and not here is because we do not demand excellence from our students (and teachers for a good measure!): we begin by asking for 75% attendance that can be worked upto to 65% through other concessions to write an exam. The message we are giving is: their physical presence for 65% of class time is enough to obtain degrees. For teachers of course, we do not even have that!! Why not ask for 95% attendance? We conduct supplementary and improvement exams and it does not show up in their mark sheets as such. Why not indicate it? Additionally, we conduct these immediately after vacation, and students write it with no preparation whatsoever. We have not implemented simple suggestions from students that were brought up in one of the earlier blogs: syllabus of all courses/subjects on the web. This brings accountability for both teachers and students because students will be expected to know all of that when they leave from here. Importantly, we can demand excellence from students only if we, as teachers, are willing to provide excellence from our end! I think a large majority students will continue to use the University as a stepping stone for something better on the other side, but at least we could try to bring in more professionalism in our attitudes so that their experience and training here is towards achieving excellence in whatever they do. If we do that, I believe, there will begin to be Life here as well!

  9. Another mail that came, probably in response to this post, ILE?. I’m reproducing it in its entirety since it is really a plea from the student community and is directed to all of us teachers.

    Dear Sir,

    This is requesting you to include a tutorial component to every IMSc course across the board for students of all years. The same request has been put forth in many feedback forms and in verbal format; but there has been no implementation of the same.

    The general opinion of Integrated students is very poor and to add to it the results of the batches that have graduated over the years hasn’t been great either. This is all due to lack of proper direction/ orientation. We are often compared to the IISc/ IIT/ IISER students, but what is often forgotten is that they have well structured courses with material for building the concept and practising the application of the same a plenty; which we don’t.

    It is with the experience of one course where we were provided sheets/ quizes/ assignments consistently I have learnt first hand that learning a topic is faster, easier and has higher retentivity in such a format. Especially in the higher years where the syllabus gets hazy, the prescribed text book doesn’t contain all the concepts or there isn’t a prescribed text at all, groping in the dark becomes the daily task of an average student rather than learning the concept itself. And hence a large portion of the time daily goes away in Googling without results. I don’t say that searching for material is bad, neither do I say that having courses with flexible content is wrong, but all I say is its not fair to expect top performance with very little or no practice. Practice or no practice you might say is left to us, I agree to it; but you can’t expect people who have hardly played gully cricket properly to perform against the mighty Australian National Cricket team (in our case the MSc people whom we shall join in year 4.)

    I urge you to please enforce tutorials with sufficient assignments/problem sheets for every IMSc course. It is then and then only that the IMSc students could be compared to the MSc people and students across the country and the globe who have practiced.

  10. And another lengthy response that started off cheerfully with Hello VC!

    Here are some thoughts which came up in my mind as I read it:
    1. Most foreign universities have a huge inter-disciplinary, inter-cultural and inter-national environment apart from the infrastructure. In some of the good universities I know, there are many inter-department meets where faculty from different departments came together in a room and discussed about various problems in science where they could collaborate with each other and solve the problem. And also the Universities abroad have several collaborations with the private companies or firms, which adds up to the value of the university and also adds up to the experience of the student who is over there.

    Which I think is practiced in India, but I think it could also be practiced in UoH to a large extent as this might give confidence to students that they can have a broader and better experience in science here.

    2. Most foreign universities have been able to attract lots and lots of students from various countries from Germany, Poland, Norway, China, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, India etc etc. And the university tries to keep the campus environment dynamic by conducting several meets or fests where all the students from different countries get to meet each other, share ideas, share culture and this is a wonderful experience. Our university has some how not come up to that stage where the number of foreign students are almost equal to the number of Indian students and in particular in the integrated program, we do not have many students from abroad.

    Our SIP office is also not so dynamic in the sense, that it has not been able to create forums for the foreign students and Indian students to share ideas.

    My response to the email sent to you by one of the student: I agree to his/her opinion. Even I feel that tutorials for courses should be hold for Integrated students, particularly in the first year (the first two semesters) especially for the math and biology as it might be very useful for the students who had no biology or no math in their 12th grades. Another issue, which I have been constantly telling all the concerned faculty is to put up the syllabus, prescribed text books and all the resources for the Integrated Sciences, this will help the students and faculty to a large extent as the students can come prepared to the classes before attending them. And I also agree with Prof.Krishnaveni Mishra’s idea to indicate in the final certificate if the student scored the grade after the supplementary or improvement, as this might make the final grade scores more clear and transparent.

    And not only just thinking about the students opinion about our university, I would also like to think about the ranking agencies opinion about our university! Why is it that our university has not come up to the level of top universities in the world, say according to QS rankings? We have world class faculty, we students are working hard and we’re getting the best fellowships for Summer internships and PhD and Post doc., then why are we still behind? I think that yet we have the best faculty, NOT ALL students over here are great, and why is that? I think, it might be because not all students are putting in effort or showing interest, and why is it happening? To solve this, i think our course should be structured in such a way that it automatically brings in the interest of the majority of the students. To make it happen, we should make things more interesting, Tutorials is a very good idea to start with, giving the students a feel of research during the semesters would be great! I dont know how to do that, but I am sure that it could be done 🙂

    Coming to the institutes like IISER, IISC, IIT’s , I have found that there are many facilities which the students over there enjoy, which we don’t. They have some kind of advantages of studying over there, which I would like to have in our university. Some of the things which I would like to share are: IIT, IISER, IISc provide more number of opportunities for the students to go abroad say for a internship or for a semester as a exchange student through their MOU. Our university doesnt have (or at-least has not been displayed) so many such MOUs where the students could go abroad and spend semester or summer. We have only with Alberta and one more university from Finland, which the students can make use of.

    Even to work in India, there is no structured program which our university has through which the students can apply to various professors in our university or in CCMB or ILS etc. IIT-Kanpur has such a program called as SURGE through which the students apply to work either abroad or in IIT-K itself. Our university should also do so.

  11. It certainly requires a detailed discussion on this deep rooted issue. My unbiased thoughts are being poured here without aiming at any individual. Starting with my own example; I like to point out various issues which are responsible for our flocks to migrate to foreign lands.
    As I was unable to converse in English during my M.Sc. Physics-1982; my interviewers at UoH helped me asking in Hindi. During this time (1982-84); our teachers had great passion for teaching; I remember one teacher while narrating the 3-dimensional motion of a particle; having waved 2-hands; kept on moving his chin to show the 3rd dimension. I remember another teacher explaining on what a Oscilloscope is before even touching it. With my M.Sc. degree from UoH; never had been an interview where I failed; when I was given the subject of questioning to be my specialisation (though I failed in TIFR as they kept on bombarding high energy physics questions). Went on to work for NASA and eventually developed a state-of-the-art mass spectrometer ever to leave earth’s gravity in the capacity of team leader in Chandrayaan mission. How can I forget it was UoH which had sown the seeds of learning science.

    The basics issues which need to be addresses to make a place a center of excellence are:
    * Passion for teaching: The other day when President Kalam gave a lecture (at UoH), he narrated that it is a primary school teacher who is responsible for making child into a responsible citizen. Extending the same logic; it is the university teacher who will turn a young human into a good researcher. DO WE HAVE TEACHERS WHO ARE PASSIONATE ABOUT THEIR WORK??? The university must do its best to get the most committed teachers at the time of selection. In my view; it was Prof. Gurubaksh Singh to whom the credit of finding the choicest faculty which catapulted UoH to such extreme ends must be given. Like in business they say “Service with a Smile” in education we need “Teaching with Passion”.

    * Basic infra-structure: If we want to build a huge pool of research talent in multi-disciplined areas; we must have a basic experimental facilities to support them. To be able to run IMSc (3-subjects), M.Sc(4-subjects), M.Techs, Ph.D (course work) we need a huge infrastructure in the form of experimental facilities apart from a huge strength of teachers; DO WE HAVE ALL THE NEEDED FACILITIES (my personal view is NO). To be able to perform cutting edge research you need state-of-the-art instruments (I am sorry, I will not be able defend Sir C.V. Raman ingenuity, but we are in 21t century, we advance tools to learn the present day subjects). A meager PC will only allow you to google; rather waste your time watching YOUtube; believe me this is a first hand experience speaking here on what I have seen in NASA/Europe or what we did in building the Chandrayaan instrument.

    * Students welfare: Having got the best team of teachers and excellent basic infra structure; what is needed is good development program for students. This program basically involves around making the students comfortable; starting from their stay to every walk of their life and especially the academic environment should always be encouraging to them; purely on the basis of academic pursuit rather than any other mundane issues which seem to be major attraction of out students for various reasons beyond the scope of this discussion.

    Finally: the litmus test for the university to come up with flying colors is based on the : Quality/quantity of publications and Students performance as they leave the system. This is again linked with excellent faculty standards both in R&D and teaching. The university needs huge funding to be able to setup a reasonably high standard infrastructure. This can be achieved by cross collaboration with industry, national and international educational organisation. May be we got few more lessons to learn on how the private universities are prospering with their own funding. The demand and supply logic certainly says that we do have a tremendous demand to fulfill, but do we have a supply of academicians to cater???

  12. “Nevertheless, the question of why Indians seem to do better abroad is one that has been asked often enough, and reasons range from the obvious to the banal.”

    I would not presume to generalise but would claim to have done better by moving abroad and can only narrate my own experience. I left IIT Kharagpur during my first year back in 1964 to be taken on in a formal engineering apprenticeship in the UK. After graduation and a 6-year apprenticeship I did not return to Indian industry – as planned – because my professor persuaded me – rather easily – to stay on for a PhD. The sheer excitement of doing the research, the direct access to my professor and the academic freedom available could not be matched by the “stifling” alternative of returning to Calcutta (which is the city I left) as a Junior Engineer (Class IV) in an organisation where there would have been 16 hierarchical levels above me to the CMD.

    Since then there have been 3 occasions when I have had the opportunity to return to India but did not, and one in 1999 when I did. Now looking back the explanation that seems most persuasive to me is that it was the “weight” of the hierarchy which would have been above me which was always decisive in prevented my return, and it was the perception of empowerment and “operational” freedom which persuaded me to return 35 years after I first left.

    I take operational freedom – in academia or in industry – to be automatically accompanied by the corresponding empowerment and devolution of responsibility. So I would suggest – and maybe this is banal – that Indians do better abroad when they are given the freedom and the authority to do so. They are empowered to operate in a manner which may not yet be possible in a “feudal” environment which still largely predominates in India. I have yet to come across any organisation in India with a truly “flat structure” where empowerment and the taking of responsibility are the focus.

  13. I think that its not just the “empowered” Indians who perform better- this number is fairly small in any case- it seems to be a larger set, many of who are not particularly in positions of authority. While it is true that the environment in India is feudal, systemic change is made the more difficult by the absence of precisely those who could have made a difference. Its not that there is no change in the mindset- its just slower, thanks to our version of the “secession of the successful”…

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