5 Ways to Make Indian Universities World-Class

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Urgent and comprehensive reforms will enable India to successfully attain its quest for world-class universities.

Winds of change may be blowing across India these days. Surgical strikes against Pakistan have raised expectations from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) has a new leader in Prakash Javadekar. Everyone the author spoke with is of the view that Javadekar is more open to new ideas than his predecessor. More importantly, the MHRD is launching Operation Vishwajeet, with the objective of improving the global rankings of seven Indian Institutes of Technology.

In addition to the above operation, the MHRD is seeking inputs on yet another ambitious project. This one seeks to create 20 world-class universities, and this author has read the MHRD’s 29-page public consultation document titled Policy on Establishment of World Class Institutions several times. This is a new step in Indian policymaking, and this author recommends all readers to send their feedback to the MHRD.

In the next 35-50 years, about 700 million to 1.3 billion youth could potentially go through India’s higher education system. Existing multidisciplinary universities have lost their way. Most have declined in their reputation, selection and rigor. After nearly 70 years of independence, India does not have one world-class multidisciplinary research university. In fact, only one university in the country, the Indian Institute of Science Bangalore, is ranked in the top 500 globally.

This author has repeatedly argued that higher education system is the nerve center of a society and nation; this nerve center in India is not functioning well; and that India needs a “Gray Revolution” that ushers in long overdue comprehensive reforms. At a time when the MHRD is seeking public consultation, this author has five ideas to make India’s higher education institutions truly world-class.

Improving Indian Universities

First, the MHRD must appoint a leader and a team with credibility. They must understand how to build and run world-class universities. The University Grants Commission (UGC) must stop chairing and managing the various selection and approval committees. Those who got the higher education system in the current mess cannot be trusted to transform it. The policy document itself recognizes the UGC’s failure, when it notes: “The above initiative is the beginning of our journey to restore the original mandate of higher education regulators, as facilitators and guides, driven by norms of self-disclosure and transparency, instead of top-down command and control and micromanagement, in the quest to achieve world-class standards in all colleges and universities.”

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The information technology CEO Nandan Nilekani’s Aadhaar project is the most recent and visible example of successful nation-wide government initiative. Nilekani brought instant credibility, insights and a network of the good. He and his team also demonstrated what a small group of dedicated, smart and hardworking people with domain expertise can accomplish in a relatively short time. The government would do well to replicate this model for the world-class universities initiative as well.

Second, the MHRD must create a transparent merit-based criterion to select these institutions. The policy document declares its intention to create 10 public and 10 private world-class universities. This declaration smells fishy. If the intent is to accelerate the establishment of world-class institutions, then the most effective and efficient strategy is to focus on the current premier institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), Indian Institutes of Management (IIM), Indian Institute of Sciences (IISc) and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), and transform them into world-class multidisciplinary research universities. They have a much better reputation, infrastructure and resources than most other institutions.

In addition, most of the top 10 colleges across most of the disciplines are public institutions. Is the focus on 10 private institutions an outcome of big business lobbying? Otherwise, why not have 15 public and five private world-class institutions—or 16-4? What will the selection criteria be? Will there be any transparency in either selection criteria or the selection process?

Third, the MHRD must attract the best and the brightest talent to be faculty members in colleges and universities by instituting market-based compensation, merit-based incentives and an effective accountability system. “All of these schools [two-thirds of the best American universities] correctly assume that the quality of the faculty is the most important factor in maintaining their reputation and position,” wrote Henry Rosovsky, former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and briefly acting president of Harvard University, in The University: An Owner’s Manual.

Stanford University’s transformation from a regional university in the early 1940s to among the top five in the world can be attributed to its commitment to attract the best talent from around the world to its faculty. The MHRD’s policy document misses this point completely, except to say the institutions “should have a good proportion of foreign or foreign qualified faculty.” It forgets that these foreign or foreign-qualified faculty could turn out be mediocre and unmotivated.

Fourth, the MHRD must leverage massive open online courses (MOOC), technology and innovations to scale with speed and excellence. MOOCs are a relatively new innovation but one that offers India an opportunity to leapfrog existing methods of education—much like wireless technologies did for communications and commerce. Currently Swayam, India’s MOOCs initiative, boasts of 93 undergraduate and 83 post-graduate program choices. The Swayam model has to be replicated. Instead, the MHRD policy document arbitrarily decrees that “not more than 30% of the program should be in online mode.” This is arbitrary, regressive and nonsensical. If India is serious about creating world-class institutions, it has to use MOOCs without restrictions.


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Finally, the MHRD must not limit its new framework to just 20 institutions. Thousands of colleges and universities must benefit from a more enabling regulatory environment. In India, 20-26 million children are born each year. If the country is to be ready for this tsunami-scale wave of tens of millions of people, then it has to transform its higher education system.

India could do well to learn from tiny Singapore. Ben Wildavsky, author of The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World, notes: “One final distinguishing feature of NUS’s [National University of Singapore] rise to excellence is that it has cultivated a meritocratic culture, backed by resources and freed from bureaucratic hiring constraints.” India could also learn from other countries such as the United States, Britain, China and South Korea that have established a world-class higher education system.

Social Mobility in India

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Once in place, a vibrant system of colleges and universities can address India’s mega challenges such as poverty, energy, water, food, health and education itself. They would also boost the research, innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem. Furthermore, world-class universities would improve social mobility and foster sustainability in a class- and caste-divided country hurtling to environmental disaster.

Winds of change are blowing in India. The country faces a big question. Will its leaders demonstrate vision and will to reform a crumbling education system that fails to serve the needs and aspirations of hundreds of millions of Indians?

The best time to reform India’s education system was yesterday. The next best time to do so is now.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Nikada

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