Thursday, October 23, 2008

Creation of world-class universities is essential

The government will create 12 Central universities, adding to the existing 18. This is a mammoth undertaking, for which Rs. 3,280 crore (about $73 million) has been allocated from the budget. Earlier in the year, India announced that it would create 30 “world-class” universities, eight new Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), and seven Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) in the coming five years. On the recommendation of the National Knowledge Commiss ion, the Centre is planning massive investment to upgrade and expand higher education. Other plans include enhancing the salaries of college and university academics — by as much as 70 per cent.

This prospect is welcome news since India lacks world-class universities according to international rankings, and Indian academics, compared internationally, are rather poorly paid. Students also suffer an immense shortage of places in top academic institutions and throughout the higher education system. India today educates only half as many young people from the university age group as China and ranks well behind most Latin American and other middle-income countries.

India exhibits a special problem at the top of its higher education hierarchy. With the notable exceptions of the IITs and the IIMs, and a small number of outstanding non-university research and training institutions — such as the All India Institute of Medical Sciences — top-notch schools are rare. Indeed, none of India’s 348 universities is ranked among the top 100 in the world. Generally, when India wanted to innovate in the higher education sector, it has sidestepped the universities and started entirely new institutions such as the IITs.

However, if India invests large amounts of money and human capital in academic improvement and expansion without undertaking strategies to ensure that the investment yields results, resources will be wasted and failure assured. Despite a discussion on organising some of the new universities based on the American model, so far neither the funding nor the ideas seem adequate.

A newspaper reported an official as saying: “The view was that there should be no hierarchy or disparity in standards amongst universities, and the reforms and changes suggested for world-class universities should be applied to all universities.” This attitude shows a complete misunderstanding that the American system institutes a significant hierarchy among the public universities.

Just pumping money and resources into a fundamentally broken university system is a mistake. Establishing new universities, especially those intended to be innovative, requires careful planning and an understanding of the weaknesses of the current system. Let us outline some of the problems that need fixing before resources are given.

Great universities need to be located on friendly soil. In general, the best universities worldwide are in or near major urban centres or in places with intellectual traditions and strength. While it is entirely appropriate to have a good university in each State, the idea of a truly world-class university (an institution that can compete with the best in the world) in cities like Guwahati or Bhubaneswar is simply unrealistic. It would be extraordinarily difficult to attract top professors or even the best students, and the “soft” infrastructure, such as most cultural amenities, is missing. High-tech industry is also absent in these locations and would be difficult to lure. No amount of money will guarantee the establishment of a world-class university in such places.

Indian academics deserve higher salaries, and the move to dramatically improve remuneration is a positive step. It would be a serious mistake to simply give more money to the professoriate without, at the same time, demanding significant reforms in the structure and practices of the profession. Indian academics are rewarded for longevity rather than productivity, and for conformity rather than innovation. The most productive academics cannot be rewarded for their work, and it is almost impossible to pay “market rates” to keep the best and the brightest in the universities. World-class universities require a salary structure that rewards productivity.

Indian universities are enmeshed in a culture of mediocrity, with little competition either among institutions or academics. Universities are subject to the whims of politicians and are unable to plan for their own future. Academics are seldom involved in their leadership and management. Bureaucracy governs everything and holds down innovation. Without essential and deep structural changes in the way universities are governed and in the culture of the institutions, there is little possibility for improvement. An additional challenge is that some of the world-class universities are to be created by improving existing State universities. This will be extraordinarily difficult since these institutions, with very few exceptions, are mired in mediocrity and bureaucracy, and are hardly amenable to change and improvement even with the carrot of additional resources.

An element of corruption exists at many levels of the higher education system, from favouritism in admissions, appointment to faculty positions, cheating in examinations, questionable coaching arrangements, and many others. Damaging at all levels, corruption destroys research culture and makes a world-class university impossible.

World-class universities are deeply meritocratic institutions. They hire the best professors, admit the most intelligent students, reward the brightest academics, and make all decisions on the basis of quality. They reject — and punish —plagiarism, favouritism in appointments, or corruption of any kind. Much of the Indian academe, unfortunately, does not reflect these values. Some of the problem is structural. The practice of admitting students and hiring professors on the basis of rigid quotas set for particular population groups — up to 49 per cent — however well-intentioned or justified, virtually precludes meritocracy. Deeply ingrained in Indian society and politics, the reservation system may well be justified — but to have successful world-class universities, meritocracy must be the primary motivating principle.

World-class universities are research intensive. All highly-ranked universities in the world exhibit this characteristic. India faces several problems in developing a research culture. It is fair to say that today no Indian university, as an institution, is research-intensive. India’s universities can claim a small number of departments that have a high level of research — and many highly accomplished professors work in the system. And some institutions, such as the IITs and some non-university agencies like the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and AIIMS, produce impressive research and are respected internationally. The creation of a research-intensive university is mandatory to achieve world-class status.

Rs.3,280 crore for the 12 new Central universities, plus the other impressive amounts announced for related projects, sounds like a lot of money. In fact, it is very inadequate. A world-class research university that can play in the best international leagues is an expensive undertaking — to establish and then to sustain. As an example, one large research-intensive new Chinese university cost around $700 million to build and has a total annual budget of close to $400 million.

Conclusion: The challenges facing the creation of world-class universities are daunting. Indeed, if India is to succeed as a great technological power with a knowledge-based economy, world-class universities are required. The first step, however, is to examine the problems and create realistic solutions. Spending large sums scattershot will not work. Nor will copying the American academic model succeed.

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