October 23, 2008

Myopic policies: creation of world-class universities

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.


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.

Bureaucracy without accountability: India is famous for sclerotic bureaucracy, and higher education fits into that mould. Few decisions can be made without taking permission from an authority above, and the wheels of decision-making grind slowly. Fear of corruption or loss of control entrenches bureaucracy. Teachers and academic leaders at colleges and universities have little incentive to innovate higher education — indeed quite the opposite. It is completely impossible to build world-class universities in this bureaucratic context. If the new institutions must tolerate responsibilities to both the Central government and the States in which they are located, the bureaucratic burden will be completely overwhelming.

Location: 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.

The academic profession: 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.

Academic culture and governance: 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.

Corruption at many levels

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.

Meritocracy at all levels: 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.

Role of research: 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.

Resources: 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.

(Philip G. Altbach is Monan professor of higher education and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, U.S. N. Jayaram is professor and dean, School of Social Sciences, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.)


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