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Review: NITI Aayog Calls for Strategic Interventions at Various Levels to Improve R&D Culture in State Universities

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NITI Aayog recently released a report, “Improving the Culture of Research and Development (R&D) in State Universities and Institutes” which provides a comprehensive analysis of R&D in Indian state universities and institutes, based on consultations with over 110 institutions across all states and union territories. Here is a review.

Research and Development (R&D) plays a crucial role in the growth and development of any country, and India is no exception. As India strives to become a global leader in technology and innovation, the significance of R&D cannot be overstated. It plays a critical role in fostering innovation, driving economic growth, creating high-quality jobs, and ensuring national competitiveness on the global stage. 

Due to its significance, a significant number of higher education institutes (HEIs) emerged in the post-Independent India. Renowned entities like the Indian Institute of Science, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and IITs have become beacons of premier research, yet traditional universities often struggle with maintaining research excellence. To address such disparity, the government has launched strategic initiatives to bolster R&D, including Startup India, FIST, PURSE, etc. Despite these efforts and a rise in the Global Innovation Index, India still faces challenges in strengthening its research infrastructure and fostering a conducive research ecosystem. 

NITI Aayog released a report providing a comprehensive analysis of R&D in Indian state universities

Observing this, the NITI Aayog recently released a report, “Improving the Culture of Research and Development (R&D) in State Universities and Institutes” which provides a comprehensive analysis of R&D in Indian state universities and institutes, based on consultations with over 110 institutions across all states and union territories. It examines current challenges and proposes strategic interventions to enhance the R&D ecosystem, aiming to foster innovation and align with national academic and scientific aspirations.

As of 31 March 2022, the University Grants Commission (UGC) recognized several types of universities in India. These include 54 Central Universities, 450 State Public Universities, 409 State Private Universities, 4 Institutions established under State Legislature Acts, and 126 Institutions Deemed to be Universities. In 2021-22, the UGC added more institutions to its list: 26 new State Public Universities, 34 new State Private Universities, one new Institution Deemed to be a University and a new Institute established under the State Legislature. 

India’s spending on R&D has increased but has declined in terms of GDP share

India’s spending on R&D has shown steady growth, with the Gross Expenditure on Research and Development (GERD) rising from Rs. 60,196.75 crores in 2010-11 to Rs. 127,380.96 crores in 2020-21. In other words, there has been a doubling of expenditure over a decade, which highlights India’s increased focus on research and innovation. The government continues to be the primary investor in R&D in the country even though the share of private investment in total R&D has improved from around 32% to 36% during 2010-11 and 2020-21.

Despite the growth, India’s current GERD remains around 0.7% of GDP as against India’s target of 2% set in 2013. India’s GERD as a percentage of GDP is low compared to other countries like Brazil (1.15%), Russia (0.94%), China (2.43%), and Egypt (1.02%).

Limited financial support is a significant hurdle for R&D in India

The report notes that one of the primary obstacles faced by institutes and universities in the country is the lack of sufficient funding and resources. Limited financial support restricts the establishment of state-of-the-art research facilities, procurement of advanced equipment, and hiring/retaining of skilled researchers. This financial constraint also affects the ability to conduct large-scale research projects, the availability of interdisciplinary research facilities and the ability to collaborate with industry partners, thereby impeding the overall growth of R&D activities. With respect to interdisciplinary research, there is no designated forum or platform for researchers from different disciplines to converge and exchange ideas.

Brain Drain, long administrative processes, and poor student enrolment are some challenges

Another significant challenge as per the report is the imbalance between teaching and research responsibilities among faculty members. Educators in many State Universities and Institutes are often burdened with heavy teaching loads and administrative duties, leaving them with limited time to dedicate to research pursuits. ‘Brain Drain’ in Indian R&D persists as highly skilled researchers are drawn to superior infrastructure, funding, and career opportunities in developed countries.

Bureaucratic hurdles and complex administrative processes pose additional challenges to fostering a conducive environment for R&D. Lengthy approval procedures and cumbersome grant application processes, can slow down the pace of research activities and discourage faculty members and students from engaging in innovative projects.

Low enrolment in advanced degree programs, such as MTech and PhD, poses a multifaceted challenge to the research landscape within state universities and institutes. Students often lack awareness about the opportunities and benefits associated with advanced degrees, and institutions may struggle with effective promotional and outreach activities. Financial constraints also deter prospective students from enrolling in these programs.

There’s also a concerning trend of prioritizing the quantity of publications over the quality and impact of research. This focus on publication metrics can lead to superficial research outputs rather than deep, meaningful contributions to knowledge.

The report has made recommendations at the institute, state, and central levels for addressing the challenges in R&D. 

At the institute level, conducting a comprehensive assessment of the existing research facilities within the institution, exploring public-private partnerships, and the creation of dedicated collaborative spaces has been recommended. Efforts to improve faculty engagement and student participation by making scholarly content accessible, providing incentives, and conducting workshops have been recommended. It has also called for collaboration with industries by establishing industry-sponsored research positions, joint projects and internship opportunities. 

At the state level, it is recommended that universities be given more autonomy over finances

Recommendations at the state level include granting universities greater autonomy over finances and decision-making which can expedite research initiatives and tailor them to local needs. Secondly, identifying specific thrust areas for research, aligning with regional and national priorities, can lead to more focused and impactful outcomes. Streamlining faculty recruitment processes and empowering departments with greater autonomy was recommended to attract and retain top-tier academic talent. Equitable distribution of research funds, scaling up promising research projects to a commercially viable level, and enhancing fellowships were recommended. Investing in modern research instruments through various funding mechanisms and collaborative initiatives to equip researchers with the tools necessary for research was recommended.

Exemption of state universities from GST recommended at the central level

At the Central level, it was recommended to accelerate the implementation of the National Education Policy 2020. It also called for a focus on research-oriented education and better infrastructure, and for giving special status to universities in unique regions like Northeast India which helps address their specific needs. It noted that a dedicated fund and technical support network are needed for maintaining research equipment. Further, contract teacher appointments should follow UGC guidelines for fair practices and compensation. Stringent criteria should be enforced for new universities to ensure quality and sustainability. Allowing external PhD registrations can diversify research perspectives, and exempting state universities from GST and income tax will alleviate financial constraints and support their academic missions.

In conclusion, the NITI Aayog’s report underscores the need for strategic interventions at various levels.

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A bachelor’s degree in mathematics and master’s in social science, she is driven by ardent desire to work with this unique combination to create her own path instead of following the herd. Having served a stint as the college union chairperson, she is a strategist who is also passionate about nature conservation, art and loves solving Sudoku.

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