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Asian universities must foster private innnovation

By Binod Singh (chinadaily.com.cn)
Updated: 2010-10-15 15:31
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Asia is on the rise and so are Asian universities. In fact Asia has never had a dearth of talent. It has had a tradition of scholarly pursuit since time immemorial. As the first decade of the 21st century is drawing to a close, there is growing hope and expectations for Asian university students to come up with innovative ideas in many fields.

We all know that Indian and Chinese students at US universities are envied by their global peers for their diligence and innovative skills. In the last century, students from both nations have contributed immensely to the cause of domestic and international development. So China and India are not short on talent but a sound educational system.

"Private innovation" is one of the most important factors that our governments need to be concerned with. What I mean here by "private innovation" is that there should be more autonomy given to our R&D institutions. We have ample proof that the R&D system at our higher education centers have not lived up to our expectations. This is especially true in China, where a lot of R&D funds have been misappropriated for foreign travel and hosting banquets.

Due to the bureaucratic nature of Chinese universities, a serious researcher cannot pursue his research interest in a very nurturing environment. Chinese universities now have abundant funds for R&D to support their scholars, but the way it is channeled smells of corruption and red-tapism. Living and studying in China, we know about the fapiao (bill) being used to get money appropriated from the R&D fund.

One of our teachers always asks us if I can hand over my air ticket or train ticket bill to him. So he can then use it to get money from the university research fund, which is set up for hosting foreign experts. I have stopped going to dinners hosted by that teacher because I noticed that the bill is paid by the university and not by the individuals. One also wonders how a simple university teacher in Beijing is driving a BMW and buying a house worth 2 million RMB. Here I must mention that we also have some honest and ethical teachers who stay away from these controversies.

Compared with Chinese peers, Indian universities have a shortage of a large fund. They have to depend on some annual grant, which is quite limited, although increasing fast as the Indian economy is growing at a high rate in the last decade. The 2008 R&D budget in India was approximately $6 billion, which is far less than in China.

I was in the audience when Premier Wen Jiabao addressed the students at the Indian Institute of Technologies (IIT) Delhi in 2005. He did acknowledge the fact that China should create research institutions like IIT in India. IITs and IIMs are basically autonomous institutions governed by a director who is selected by a selection committee after a global search. The students at these institutes are selected through an all-India competitive test, in which more than 2.5 million students participate but only 3,000 are admitted to the five IITs. There could be no back door even for a foreign student. If a foreign student decides to join IITs he must participate in the test and compete with Indian students. The governance regimes at the IIMs are similar in nature. This is the reason that despite the chaos in the country at different levels, some of the institutes have been able to maintain their global reputations.

Under the challenge of climate change and sustainability of economic development, India and China, along with other Asian universities, must make a great leap forward in their R&D contributions to the domestic economy.

First and foremost, government must reform the fund allocation system and reduce the red-tapism and check out any chance of misuse of fund allocated for R&D purposes. This is the only way to realize the dream of making the 21st century an Asian century. If our universities fail us on the innovation front, we will be in a disadvantaged position to negotiate with the developed world on many fronts.

The writer is a PhD scholar at Peking University and teaches at Beijing Foreign Studies University. He can be contacted at binod@126.com.