Creating world-class universities: What are we missing?

Universities

The absence of any of the Indian Institutions in the top 100 or even 200 world-class universities ranked by international agencies like the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), Times Higher Education (THE) has been a matter great concern to the country.

Every time the matter was discussed, the men who matter in the corridors of power only spoke of an increase in the funding. Though this is one of the essential inputs, it is not the only one. This has been proved during the 11th five-year plan in which an allocation of Rs 44,000 crore for higher education — three times higher than the usual — ended with only Rs 18,000 crore utilised, with little tangible result. In fact, 50% of the sanctioned teaching positions remained vacant.

I studied the basic lacunae or missing parameters in Indian institutions vis-a-vis the top 100 of the world-class universities when I was involved in writing the 12th five-year plan document in 2012. I found certain critical characteristics of world-class universities that were glaringly missing or deficient in Indian universities.

Critical mass of students: This factor is extremely crucial for spikes of excellence to rise on a large canvas. The simplest analogy is that fishing in a pond fetches you small fish and crabs, while fishing in oceans could get you a catch of all sizes, sometimes even a shark or a whale. What we are missing on our campuses are the sharks and whales.

The campus spaces are grossly underutilised. The national average of students on the campuses of Indian universities is 3,500, and in a college, 460. The average student strength on the campuses of world-class universities is about 20,000; it even goes up to 90,000. The average student density on Indian campuses is 11 per acre while it is up to 60 to 70 per acre in most world-class universities.

The bottom line is that no Indian institution or university uses its campus space optimally. The immediate focus should be to increase the student intake, along with an increase in amenities, infrastructure and faculty. A policy to facilitate enhancing the intake and approaching a critical mass was missing in the 11th Plan. Surprisingly, even the new draft National Education Policy is silent on this vital parameter.

Diversity: The diversity index of the faculty and students on campus contributes to the quality of teaching, learning, innovation and inventions, but it is a major concern for most Indian institutions, except for the centrally-funded premium institutions. Maintaining diversity and abolishing inbreeding (or not hiring its own graduates as professors) should be the basic policy of institutions.

The diversity index of world-class universities is more than 50%, in both students and faculty, while it is 0-5% in all state government-funded universities in India. The centrally-funded premium institutions have a diversity index ranging from 20 to 50% among both students and faculty. This is directly reflected in better quality and performance of these institutions.

Diversity in student population can be increased only by recruiting students from across the country through entrance tests conducted nation-wide. Even the 100-year-old University of Mysore does not conduct entrance exams across the country, thus limiting its student demography to local districts. The diversity factor of faculty is zero here. Karnataka has been opening so-called universities in every district, losing sight of the much-needed universality in a university.

Undergrads on campus: Undergraduate programmes on the campus and integrated master’s programmes are offered only at IITs, IIMs, other new central technical institutions and a few central universities like Pondicherry University and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Indian universities, particularly the state-funded ones, are typically local in character, with prolific inbreeding of faculty, offering only master's and doctoral programs.

The introduction of undergraduate programmes on university campuses will have an enormous positive impact on the quality of students entering the master's programmes. This recommendation finds a place in the draft National Education Policy.

Absence of collaboration: The fourth factor that distinguishes Indian institutions from the world-class universities elsewhere is the deeply entrenched culture and mindset of non-collaborative and isolated research. There exist the hard, impermeable intellectual walls between departments, faculties and schools within a university and forts built between universities. The central research laboratories and a host of other institutions hardly collaborate between themselves or interact with universities.

This culture was nurtured even in premium institutions of the country for decades, shutting out the sharing of resources, keeping their labs out of bounds to other groups and discouraging joint teaching and research programmes between their various schools and between institutions.

As a result, Indian universities, central research laboratories and the centrally-funded premium institutions have worked as islands, disconnected from each other. The heads of institutions hardly realised the harm they were doing for decades by their conservative and bureaucratic approach, preventing free thinking, interaction and innovation in Indian teaching and research institutions.

Unless the above four basic pillars of a world-class university become part of our education policy and our universities, with increased funding of a minimum of 6% of the GDP, the dream of creating world-class universities that figure in the top 50 globally is unlikely to be achieved.

Also, there is need for a big change in administration. There is trust deficit between university administrations and academia, besides the bureaucratic curbs on free thinking and new ideas. Egos and dominance of senior faculty often kill the enthusiasm of younger faculty. Decentralisation of power, non-interference from government in academic matters and appointments of faculty members, freedom to amend statutes, appropriate laws that help appoint faculty from across the country and other countries, mandating a minimum diversity index among students and teaching faculty, and demolition of artificial academic boundaries are the supporting steps that will help create world-class universities.

(The writer is a former vice-chancellor of Kashmir University and Pondicherry University, and a former member of UGC)

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