Universities and public research institutions are among the direct contributors towards innovation and research, particularly in emerging economies. The potential pool of talent for innovation in these economies also emanates largely from educational institutions and research institutions. Off late, the significance of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) in higher education has been widely recognized. This could be credited to the National IPR Policy approved by the Union Cabinet in May 2016, which was the first ever IPR policy framed by the Government of India. The primary focus of this Policy is towards promoting innovation and creativity, especially amongst entrepreneurs and in higher education institutions. The Policy brief specifically mentions synergising all forms of IPR, concerned statutes and agencies for tapping the creativity and innovative energies in India with a special emphasis on start-ups and educational institutions.
The University Grants Commission (UGC), the nodal authority for determining and maintaining of standards of university education in India, issued a letter for “inclusion of the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) as a generic elective subject under the Choice Based Credit System (CBCS)”. This was an initiative towards spreading IPR awareness within institutions of higher education.
In addition, the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF), a ranking system adopted by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), ranks institutions of higher education in India. These rankings act as mechanism for the institutions to include promoting innovation, research and development while assessing their performance beyond academics. One of the parameters considered while ranking and which is significant to our discussion is Research and Professional Practice that includes IPR and patents – both published and granted, by students and faculty members which has a weightage of about 15 marks. Publications and patent applications have been found to be highest from engineering and technology institutes. The ranking of top educational institutions was found to be proportional to the number of applications filed for patents. There has been significant increase in the applications filed for patents and also research publications compared to previous two years since the first announcement of this ranking system in 2016.
Though higher education system is being encouraged to invest its time and money on harnessing and spreading awareness of IP, one of the major criticisms of these initiatives is that the increased numbers of patent applications emanating from higher education institutions are an ‘eyewash’ to increase their UGC ranking and there is a blind rush to obtain higher credit scores by the students. This sometimes leads to filing of patent applications which are frivolous or plagiarised from previous publications or patents from within the country and outside.
Accentuating the problem is that India has inadequate number of qualified patent professionals such as patent examiners and patent agents, thus, compromising on speed and efficacy of the patent prosecution process. In addition, one of the changes introduced in NIRF in 2018 was the discontinuation of data on patents applied for and earnings from patents in determining rankings. This could be reinstated to suitably reflect those patent applications that are approved and have been successfully commercialised, rather than mere number of patent applications filed.
Further, the awareness of Intellectual Property Rights is limited to higher education institutions. IP awareness should be made a part of the curriculum in schooling. This will ensure that an effort at ingraining IP awareness in the education systems begins at an early stage.
There have been cases where a student is not given his due and the faculty registers themselves as inventors. A transparent research and development system should be in place in the universities to avoid such discrepancies.
Notwithstanding some of the criticism the Framework has received in its promotion of IPR in higher education, there are some significant positives. These approaches have ensured the participation of administrators, professors and students in spreading IP awareness. It has also been encouraging students to understand the importance of start-ups, thus directing their focus towards entrepreneurship. An active collaboration between the student and the university leads to growth, development and healthy commercialisation of the invention conceived in the campus. The problem of frivolous and plagiarised patent applications can be remedied by having a significant verification mechanism that would scrutinise the applications filed for obtaining patents. A separate set of examiners may be assigned by the Patent Office to exclusively deal with examining of applications filed by educational institutions. A regular, efficient recruitment process will increase the availability of skilled human resource required to perform this critical function.
Inclusion of the IPR as a generic elective subject under CBCS by the UGC and the NIRF establish a symbiotic relationship between the higher educational institutions and the students. The initiative to encourage higher educational institutions to champion IP awareness has been a welcome move. The National IPR Policy has been first of its kind since independence. The developed economies have had these initiatives for the past few decades. We can take them as a case study and incorporate the good and avoid the pitfalls. It must be ensured that implementation of these initiative should be closely monitored and should not become a policy dilemma. The onus also lies on the universities to improvise and equip for large but quality research and encourage more and more filing of patent applications and have a clear IP policy in place.