World class universities: can we create them?

World class universities: can we create them?

Ever since Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley mentioned in his budget proposal for 2016-17 that the central government was set to establish 20 world class universities or national institutions of eminence (10 each in public and private sector), there has been a good discussion on the subject. An attempt, therefore, is made here to analyse the issue against global perspectives.

One of the major reasons for the new initiative was the fact that evaluated by global benchmarks of quality, none of the Indian universities figured in the 2015 Quacquarelli-Symonds list of top 100 in the world. President Pranab Mukherjee, being the Visitor of the large number of central institutions of higher learning, has often expressed his anguish over the poor quality of our tertiary education vis-à-vis global yardsticks.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his PMO have been advocating the idea of full autonomy to IIMs, IITs and other centres of excellence to enable them earn international focus. The Niti Aayog has also been very supportive of this approach.

Hence, policy makers at the Human Resource Development Ministry are persuaded, despite the expected reluctance, to device a new but radical mechanism for extending complete autonomy to a set of IIMs, IITs and the like. It is well-recognised that India has the potential to develop certain universities as world class.

What are some of the distinguishing features of world class universities? The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University in the US have produced 74 and 46 Nobel laureates, respectively. They have endowments worth several billion US dollars. This corpus fund (generated by contributions from the alumni, corporates and philanthropists) is invested wisely and utilised prudently for a host of academic activities.

The Oxford University, with a history of more than 900 years, has students from about 140 countries and runs 10 companies through technology transfer. The university applies for a patent every week. The Stanford University has an endowment of more than $22 billion. Its faculty and alumni together have established several multinational companies worth trillions of US dollars.

Newly emerged top ranking universities in Japan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan reveal a common striking feature of greater internationalisation in faculty and student participation.

To be world class, and as per the format of global ranking agencies, a university should have international profile in terms of teaching programmes (for example, dual degree, joint certification), research projects, publications, conferences, student/faculty exchange, collaboration and above all, a multiracial, multireligious, multicultural and multidisciplinary academic milieu.

In brief, apart from robust financial strength and sound governance, a university has to manifest universality of learning in a cross-cultural anastomosis.

First of all, institutions of excellence are not ‘created’ by any government anywhere in the world. Fully autonomous universities, with or without state funding, ‘evolve’ in course of time as world class. It is a gradual but progressive metamorphosis rather than a radical or spontaneous de novo phenomenon.

This transformation entails decades and centuries of good acquaintance facilitating healthy academic practices of self-governance and self-reliance. It should be borne in mind that the role of the government, even with financial aid, should be that of a facilitator first and watchdog next, allowing universities to experiment, innovate and implement systems to attain and retain quality and excellence at all times.

Excellence is a derivate of quality for, if maintained over a period of time, the latter begets the former. External forces must desist from prescribing ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’. Harvard and Stanford, Oxford and Cambridge, Yale, Princeton and MIT have earned the brand name ‘world class’ not through government prescriptions or regulations but on their own unique and time-tested strategies for sustenance of quality.
World class universities are known for original research, both basic and advanced. Good performers among the faculty are recognised and rewarded with higher emoluments, facilities, out-of-turn promotions etc, while the poor ones are promptly retrenched. Intellectuals are allowed to work in a peaceful and healthy ambience to give in their best for creating new knowledge and its application.

There are no ‘external controls’ of acade­mic pursuits nor are there the operation of ‘isms’ — favouritism, casteism, nepotism, parochialism etc. If governments, both central and state, are serious in heralding academic excellence leading to global recognition, they should empower our universities to carry on their business in an atmosphere of total liberty.

Our experience with autonomy of institutions of higher learning: it is often argued that if UGC/AICTE regulations were to be effective in nurturing quality, at least one university/technical institution in the country should have found a place in the comity of top 100 in the world. Our IITs and IIMs have been trying for years to have autonomy in spite of good standing. However, the situation is changing with the proactive intervention of the PMO.

Recent developments

However, recent developments at the much-hyped Nalanda University (wherein both the chairman of governing council and the chancellor had to resign), does not augur well nor testify academic freedom. In spite of several commissions/committees, education policies and economic reforms, it is sad that the governance of our higher education system has literally remained unaltered.

Bureaucratic, political and even judicial infringements seem to override academic freedom to innovate. Our excessive regulations have morphed strangulations. Our rules have turned strictures. Multiple controls by numerous statutory bodies have suffocated and paralysed our universities of higher and professional education.

Quality cannot be granted by not it can be borrowed froman external agency. It should originate from within an institution as an intrinsic challenge to constantly improve upon. Attaining and retaining quality perennially warrant state-of-the-art infrastructure, highly competent team of teachers-cum-researchers, updated modular curricula, rigorous training regimen to infuse a set of soft and hard skills, full autonomy, responsive governance, zero external interference, sound resource management etc.

It must be reiterated that we cannot create world class universities but can certainly create conditions for enabling some, if not all, of them to be world class.

(The writer is former vice-chancellor, University of Mysore)
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