The foreign hand

What's wrong in letting foreigners teach budding scientists in Indian institutes or in encouraging foreign students to come here, asks Gautam Radhakrishna Desiraju.

doi:10.1038/nindia.2008.225 Published online 16 June 2008

Gautam R. Desiraju

I wrote a short note recently in a leading Indian science journal, more by way of rebutting an opinion that sought tenaciously to exclude foreign passport holders from our academic system. I said that we needed to induct foreigners at all levels. I received a large number of supportive e-mails reflecting perhaps an idea whose time has arrived. I would therefore like to elaborate on this further.

We Indians have a curious ambivalence towards foreigners. On the one hand, there is the colonial hangover that makes us defensive, even obsequious in our interactions with them, especially if they are Caucasian. Simultaneously, we also suffer from a jingoistic self-pride, harking back to our ancient glories, harbouring false illusions about our greatness. Perhaps both traits arise from the fact that colonialism debilitated the innermost psyche of most Indians. These contradictory sentiments are further complicated by the feeling that foreigners are rich while we are poor — an American is 43 times better than an Indian, a German 67 times better and so on. In any event, this complexity of emotions has made us rather wary of foreigners; maybe because of this we have an academic system in which we do not, either by law or by convention, admit foreigners at any level in our teaching institutions, be it student, post-doctoral or faculty. Of course, foreigners do visit Indian institutes but these are either courtesy calls by senior staff, foreign funded sojourns of post-doctoral fellows in elite Indian organisations or a part of carefully supervised collaborative programmes.

The most important reason we need to induct foreigners as teacher-researchers is that there is a chronic shortage of teaching talent in Indian universities. There is a real hunger for quality education today and the numbers of aspiring students are growing rapidly. The best minds have been driven away from the teaching profession and the newly found enthusiasm of the government to start new universities and institutes will not yield tangible outcomes unless a large number of excellent teachers are found. Apparently, the six IITs need 2000 new teachers. Extrapolating from this, I would estimate that we need around 10,000 new teacher-researchers in the centrally funded institutions alone. Where are all these people going to come from? The decision of the government to start new institutions is not wrong, but what is wrong is that it seems to have been taken without thinking about the shortage of teachers. It would be disastrous if we appointed anyone who just came along. Many teachers in our institutions today are just plain incompetent. Who knows how and why they were appointed? A bad teacher is like a time bomb — he or she continues to generate sub-standard students for decades, and they in turn perpetrate this demolition derby of human minds. No responsible society would continue to keep silent in this critical situation, as we have chosen to. Crises require drastic and quick remedies, and we must look for teachers in foreign lands because we have nowhere else to go. Interestingly, in many parts of the advanced world there is a surfeit of well trained young scientists who do not secure proper employment in their own countries. The complementary nature of these two situations is self-evident and we must act shrewdly in our national interest.

A bad teacher is like a time bomb — he or she continues to generate sub-standard students for decades, and they in turn perpetrate this demolition derby of human minds

The entry of foreigners into the higher levels of our academic system will lead to many beneficial effects and I will merely state them, without detailed discussion: (1) It will open us to different ways of thinking and decision making. We are not infallible in our ways and would do well to consider points of view from different cultures and value systems; (2) It will increase the quality and competitive spirit within the Indian academic community because we will see the entry of people who genuinely want to be academics, rather than make do with those who take up this career option because they have nothing else to do; (3) It will allow us to interact with foreigners more reasonably than we now do. There is a middle path between obsequiousness and arrogance. It is called normalcy; (4) It will enhance feelings of self-worth in the minds of our students. Our country must be good if a foreigner wants to come here to work, they will argue; (5) It will allow us to be more open and transparent and move to a fully quality-based system where merit alone stands paramount. I personally feel that we would be less likely to indulge in low quality, shoddy and unethical activity if foreigners are among us; (6) It would allow Indian scientists to participate more directly in the scientific systems of foreign countries, simply because person-to-person contact with foreigners will go up. In the end, all this is a natural consequence of globalisation. Globalisation is not just about Indians getting call centre jobs in Hyderabad and Bangalore. Globalisation is also about foreigners working in the IT sector, acting in Bollywood movies, and playing cricket in the IPL. Who could object to hiring a foreigner as a teacher when we are able to accept all this so comfortably? Surely it cannot be said that national security will be affected!

A foreigner should be included as a responsible member of our teaching community with all the responsibilities and rewards that our system has to offer. I am not advocating different pay scales for people of different nationalities. This would be demeaning to our self-respect and the improving image of this country abroad is such that many foreigners would be happy to earn the same salaries in India as Indians would for doing comparable work. This is already happening in the IT sector. The cost of living in India is far lower than in Europe and North America: accordingly it should come as no surprise to them that the salary structure is also lower. These observations should be considered along with the fact that academic salaries in India are rising today. Gone are the days when university professors had to lead impoverished lives when compared to their friends in the civil services and the private sector.

We do not need to fear that the East India Company is all set to return. This is 2008 and not 1615

We need foreign students too. These students are important because they will become excellent ambassadors for the better aspects of Indian life when they return to their home countries after their studies. Many students in densely populated Asian countries will look towards India as a destination if we open our doors to them. In turn, their presence here will have a positive effect on the self-confidence of Indian students. Our brain drain has largely been a crisis of confidence. Our students simply do not feel that they can make it in India. So, they leave our shores at the first possible opportunity to do an MBBS in Moldavia or be a data puncher in Montana. The presence of foreign students in India will make them question their actions. Are they doing the right thing in emigrating? Like in many other countries that admit foreign students, I do not believe that we should admit too many undergraduates unless they pay high fees. However, foreign students should be freely admitted into our PhD programs on the same terms and conditions as locals.

Finally, I will take up the question of post-doctoral associates. The Indian scientific scene is characterised by the absence of this important component of academic life. The reason that we do not have a post-doctoral culture is already implied from the discussion above. For an Indian completing his or her PhD in India, going abroad for a post-doctoral fellowship has become a compulsory badge of honour, and most Indian students will go to any lengths to go to any laboratory in any foreign country for a post-doctoral fellowship. This vacuum can easily be filled by foreign post-doctorals. Once again, I will hazard a guess and say that Indian students will continue in India for a post-doctoral assignment if they see foreigners here in the same capacity. Compared to hiring foreign faculty or admitting foreign students, the induction of foreign post-doctoral students is administratively straightforward and will bring immediate benefits.

Our country is in the midst of an economic and cultural revolution. We have been literally fast forwarded into a new, more aggressive, more competitive environment due to global events. Our academic system has, however, remained in a fixed mind state, smugly insulated from the blizzard of change that batters it from all sides. The xenophobic impulses which might have led to present attitudes about admitting foreigners into our academic system have no place in a modern world where India is seen as a major and responsible player. We do not need to fear that the East India Company is all set to return. This is 2008 and not 1615. The academic community should be at the vanguard of this changing and dynamic scenario and not be dragged into it kicking and screaming.

The author is a professor of chemistry at the University of Hyderabad and is on the council of the Indian National Science Academy.