Academic Rigour in Contemporary Indian Higher Education: Some Questions and Reflections

Posted on November 25, 2010



Author:  Sanjay Goel,


The Sanskrit word for ‘student’ is ‘Vidyarthi,’  the knowledge seeker.   There is a Sanskrit verse, “Sukharthiin kuto Vidya, Vidyarthiin kuto Sukham.” It means that where is knowledge for the comfort seeker and where is comfort for the knowledge seeker? Intellectual  rigour  is essential for stretching students’  intellectual capacity beyond current limits to prepare them  to function effectively in the increasingly complex and diverse world with good understanding of their responsibilities and appreciation of rigorous professional standards.   For an intellectually rigorous educational experience, the students need to be challenged continuously through challenging  assignments/projects, difficult exams, engaging discussions, tougher grading standards, etc.

The students need to appreciate and enjoy intellectual challenge. They need to  have the  desire and readiness of sacrificing the comfort.   The faculty has the responsibility of  cultivating such habits.  The HoDs, Deans, and VCs  have the responsibility of demanding and encouraging  the faculty to do so.  The parents have the responsibility of asking questions about the intellectual challenge rather than than just placement and package.  The placement obsessed  education media has the responsibility of writing about the efforts to increase the intellectual challenge.  One bad side effect of media rich society is that it has become very difficult to create local pockets of intellectual rigour based education. Since not many students are intrinsically motivated for deeper learning,  unless there is respect for intellectual challenge in their  eco-system, the students are not likely to  value  it.

With reference to  college students’ academic engagement, we have two issues :

1. insufficient hours of out-of-class independent study/work  (assignments, project, field work etc.), and

2. superficial nature of engagement in the so called “engaged” hours.

The 2nd of these two issues  is certainly more important that  needs to be and has been discussed [1] [2] [3]. However, off lately,  I have began to feel  that there are serious weaknesses in the contemporary  Indian higher education, at the 1st  issue itself.   Certain minimum hours are necessary (but not to be confused as sufficient) condition for deep learning.  Unless there is discussion and shared understanding about the 1st issue, all the discussion and efforts about the 2nd issue are likely to be ineffective or at best only only marginally effective.   This article addresses the first issue in the context of undergraduate to doctoral level education.

A perspective on Current generation of students

Taylor, M.L., in “Generation NeXt comes to college,” quotes president William C. Durden’s convocation address, August 2005 at Dickenson College: they expect high grades without significant effort and often just for showing up; demand comfort and luxury more than a rigorous education; see themselves as consumers and expect services, and extended and direct personal attention on demand; have little respect for authority and show distain for collegial and social rules of conduct, instead asserting personal privilege; fail to differentiate between civil exchange of reasoned ideas and shouting personal beliefs, yet grow defensive when faced with constructive criticism; and have a naïve sense of the future. He succinctly describes the postmodern college student where “facts don’t really matter; what matters is the uninhibited, unedited, and immediate assertion of your egotistical options and thereby, the preservation of your self-esteem at all costs. It truly is all about you.

However, this perspective about current generation of college students is  not agreed by many. They believe that today’s students are eager to learn and work hard, when education is real, relevant, and includes an experiential aspect.  Comparing my recent experiences of the last 4-5 years with the teaching experiences of 1988-2006,  a large section of the current  engineering students in India is giving highest importance to the  perceived  relevance of education to their immediate next goals (read it short term).  Expansion of   intellectual capacity, or grounding in real life problems, or even  experiential pedagogy  seem to have become lesser attractive for them as  compared to their preceeding cohorts of last decade and  even the first half of the current decade.  During several informal conversations, these views have also been  shared by  many other senior level Indian engineering educators in India.   Incidentally,  the impressive growth of MBA programs and also campus recruitment by IT services industry  are coincidental with this phenomenon.

International benchmarks of Weekly Academic load in Higher Education

According to US system, at good universities, 1 credit normally implies a minimum of 3-4 hrs. of weekly academic work in a semester. This load includes the contact hrs. It implies that a typical 3 credit course should engage the student for 9-12 hrs. per week. At best universities, for some courses, this engagement is much longer.  For example, at Stanford University,  two undergraduate level CS courses – Operating Systems and Compilers require the students to work for more than 20 hrs. per week.  Their graduate level couses like Machine Learning,  Convex Optimization, and Probabilistic Models normally require students to work for 20-25 hrs per week. 

 As per, European Credit System, a student should be engaged for 1500-1800 hrs. for academic work in an academic year. The underlying assumption of both these benchmarks of academic rigour is that so much of regular academic engagement at appropriate level of challenge will help the students to learn well. This translates to approx. 50 – 60 hrs. of weekly engagement in a semester system. It includes the time spend in lectures, tutorial, seminars, laboratories, project work, assignments, literature survey, field work, and self study, etc. It may be noted that in addition to such level of academic work, most regular American and European students also do some part time jobs for upto 20 hrs. per week.

Indian  Context

In our Indian context, a very large number of  undergraduate and masters students  do not do any part time jobs. Therefore they should be able to take even more academic load. Academic rigour comes by quality and quantity of engagement. However, for simplified understanding, if we try to map the recommended normal academic load benchmark of European Credit system regarding quantity of engagement to our system in India, it implies the following examples:

i. In a 23 credits semester, for a 4 credit course, a student should typically be engaged for 9-10 hrs per week, including the contact hrs. If the course also has a 1 credit sister lab course, than the total desirable work load of both become 11 – 13 hrs. per week. In case the sister lab has 2 credits the total desirable effort for both courses will be13 -16 hrs.per week.

ii. In a 28 credit semester, a 5 credit minor project must engage the student for 9-11 hrs per week.

iii. In a 22 credit semester of final year, a 3 credit course must create a weekly workload of 7-8 hrs. In the same semester, the 10 credit project must engage the student for 22-27 hrs per week.

iv. In a 17 credit semester, for a 3 credit course, a student should typically be engaged for 9-11 hrs per week.

v. In a 20 credit semester, a 3 credit elective must create a weekly workload of 8-9 hrs. In the same semester, the 12 credit project must engage the student for 30-36 hrs per week.

vi. In a 22 credit semester, a 3 credit elective must create a weekly workload of 7-8 hrs. In the same semester, the 14 credit project must engage the student for 32-38 hrs per week.

It is important to note these loads are normally recommended loads for regular work. EXCELLENCE requires a student or a system to go beyond such academic loads.

Points for reflection

With this background, we need to reflect about the following core academic issues:

1. The outside world is now seeing India as an emerging superpower. India now has the great oppotunity to re-claim its past glory of being the  world leader in economics as well as in knowledge.  It will require the current and next generation of Indians to work hard to realize this possibility.   What kind of professional competencies and values must be inculcated in next generation of Indian citizens to enable them to realize this opportunity?

2.  Will  these professional competencies and values in anyway depend  upon the quantity and level of their academic engagement during college days?

3.  Surely some Indian institutes provide good quality undergraduate education.  Can we say the same wrt postgraduate especially doctoral education?  Should India really aspire to become an economic and knowledge superpower before putting such academic rigour in higher education ? Can such aspirations be met without putting such academic rigour, especially at masters and doctoral level.

4. Indian Universities have a very poor rating in the international ratings.  The list top 500 Universities shows only 2-3 Indian names and none in the top 50.   Can Indian  Universities, really move forward towards  being rated among the top 100 universities of the world,  without the academic community, ensuring and often exceeding such international benchmarks of academic rigour in our courses?

5. Are agencies like Ministry of HRD, UGC, AICTE, NBA, NAAC or Universities or departments taking any concrete steps to bring such (or even more) rigour in Indian education?

6. Is Indian Industry demanding such (or even more) rigour? Is it ready to leverage and reward the talent of those few students who accept to go through such rigorous academic preperation?

7. Are Indian parents demanding such kind of educational experience for their children?

8. Is Indian education university   management responsive (or even sensitive) to such international trends in Higher education? If so, which Indian Universities and education programs (including the so called centres of excellence) are successful in creating so much or more academic rigour through their courses?

9. Do University teachers, usually intend to create such kind of academic rigour in their courses? If yes, are such intentions being manifested in our student assignments/projects and also the prevailing assessment standards. In this regard, are we  really setting our expectations high enough and also conveying the same to students?

10. Do our students understand the importance of such kind of academic rigour? Through our counselling, teaching, supervision, and assessment, are we making enough efforts to sensitize them about the importance of academic rigour?

11. Are the prominent epistemological and quality related beliefs,  expectations, and practices of the faculty at top 20 institutes in India comparable to the   epistemological and quality related beliefs,  expectations, and practices of their counterparts at world’s top 200 Universities.

12.  Are the prominent epistemological and quality related beliefs,  expectations, and practices of the undergraduate, masters, and  doctoral students at top 20 institutes in India comparable to the   epistemological and quality related beliefs,  expectations, and practices of their counterparts at world’s top 200 Universities.

Some Valuable Comments by Others

1.  Prof. M.N Faruqui, Former Deputy Director IIT Kharagpur and Former VC, AMU

“Rigour has to be maintained for excellence.  The project or assignment in every course in each semester should require about 25 hours of independent work by the student.  … At Masters level, student must put about 25-30 hours of independent work per week.”

2. Uma Garimella, Teacher Educator

“I have seen that the trend is towards taking shortcuts rather than working it out. Even talented students with high potential succumb to the system. …  Most of the efforts by regulatory bodies also turn out to be rituals with a canned solution and short cuts by colleges.”

3.  Dr.G .Prageetha Raju

“Higher education enhances one’s horizons of thought and action and thus without that becoming a super power is just a wishful thought.”

4.   M. Vijay Balaji, Trainer, academician, Optimist, Catalyst, News sniffer, employability researcher:

“except for inputs from reputed institutes like IIt, IIm’s Bits etc, Industry has almost given up on the expectations on quality. Their recruitment methods are designed in such a way as to only find who would fit in their team and then they already have in place an elaborate skill training depending upon the job profile. …All industries have training cells etc and because of which there is money, jobs and utility value for many. Hence these vested interests also will want the system to remain as it is.”

“….the demand for quality education would continue to be less. Today students look for certificates, knowing fully well that actual learning starts outside classroom. Faculty wants to finish with the mundane assessments and move on and this would continue for a while. “

“…Education in most parts of the country is mainly for certificates, jobs, dowry and status. Knowledge is the least priority and as long as the demand equations are such, the supply would remain thus constant. Indian parents are changing. Exposure and also peer pressure would ultimately make them wise enough to learn and teach to learn. …Indian students are adaptable and they would adapt as demand changes.  Now who will change it?The change can come only if students will. No faculty or administrator can change.”

5. Lokesh Joshi, Director, Research & Development at Bitstream India Pvt. Ltd

“I feel the technical content has gone low. Very low if I talk of India. We have huge number of engineers graduating but very few are employable.
The expectations of recruiters has also gone low. I find the lack of Theoretical knowledge and algorithmic approach very common. Just now I asked one guy that how will he draw a square on a screen, he said it has been”long” time when he did in graduation (he was 2 yrs exp). So that’s like the situation is, rendering a simple square in one for loop is a big thing.”

6. Steve Taylor, Instructor at SAU Tech, Manager of Alien Productions, Freelance Video Producer, USA

“…The majority of (current) students do not enjoy academic rigor….I also have a problem when any school system creates an environment where they preach that “all students will succeed”. If all students succeed, there is no rigor. All students will not succeed. All students will not fail. There’s no shame in trying and failing, only when you don’t try at all.”

7. Lalit Rao, Editor, Film Critic/Screenwriter/UGC-NET certified French Translation & Interpretation Team Lead

“Indian industry is not demanding any kind of rigor. It is just happy with how things are functioning in current times….one doubts whether Indian parents are demanding any kind of additional educational experience from their children. …(Are Indian students ready to undergo education experience demanding rigor?) Yes, but only when they go abroad to study.”

8. Kumar Lomash, Computer Scientist at Adobe

“I totally agree is that the system does not need academic rigour. Instinctively, rigour is not something that we directly desire; it is a cost that we have to pay if we want to achieve excellence. If there is no demand for excellence then rigour is just an overhead.”

9.  Sarbjit Singh, Executive Director at Apeejay College of Engg.,  Gurgaon, India.

“Indeed current generation student is more demanding, less caring, less responsible and at times more volatile. Has good reasoning due to increased awareness of global happenings. Has inter-connectivity through Cell Phone, Internet emailing, face book. There is , shift from reading books to browsing on Goggle pages. Cares less to attend classes and demand placement.
Perhaps parents, relatives friend all participate in study of student and defend his/her acts which puts pressure of Teachers/institutions. Students pay lesser respect to teacher and take it as business. He/she says – here is fee get me degree and job too. Principal /Director/Dean to be more responsive, transparent and proactive to manage today’s student.”



2. Sanjay Goel, What is high about higher education: Examining engineering education through Bloom’s taxonomy, The National Teaching & Learning Forum, Vol. 13, pp 1-5, Number 4, 2004.

3.  Sanjay Goel and Nalin Sharda, What do engineers want? Examining engineering education through Bloom’s taxonomy, Proceedings of 15th Annual AAEE Conference, pp173-185,  2004.

4.  Theories that can help teachers/trainers/e-learning designers to think like educators, help students to improve their learning ability, and also help Software Developers in developing domain competence and readiness

5.   Some Theoretical Perspectives about Learning and Teaching


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