Folly of instant eminence

World-class universities

Oxford University

Recently, an empowered expert committee (EEC) was constituted by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) with a mandate to identify 20 universities (10 each from public and private sectors) with potential to be enlisted among the world’s top 500 institutions of higher learning within the next 10 years.

The selected universities, in addition to being christened as National Institutes of Eminence with full functional autonomy (delinked from the usual UGC/AICTE regulations) are entitled for a monetary support of Rs 1,000 crore over a period of five years, although the grant is only for the public universities. Alas! It was reported that the EEC and the MHRD had a lot of difficulty in choosing the desired number of universities because a good majority of the 114 aspirants did not demonstrate the expected level of research output and, as a consequence, only six institutions (one still in the conceptual stage) emerged as winners, three each from public and private domains.

The message from the foregoing narrative is crystal clear. That is, although we currently have more than 900 universities, not even a few are good enough if judged against international standards. Further, it implies that post-Independence, only the quantity, not quality, of higher education has undergone a sea change.

The question that arises is, what makes a university great, to shine brightly in the eyes of international ranking agencies such as the Times Higher Education survey, Quaquarelli-Symonds (QS) and Shanghai University ratings, among others? Why do we need to go for global ranking in the first place? The answer is that today’s informed students/ parents would like to know the international status of institutions for pursuing expensive higher/ professional education. Having said that, let us briefly examine the hallmarks of a few globally acclaimed universities.

International approach in student admissions and faculty appointments is a distinguishing feature of highly placed institutions of higher learning. For instance, Yale University (estd:1701) enrolls 15% of its undergraduate and post-graduate students from more than 108 countries; Oxford University (1167) admits students from nearly 150 countries; at Harvard University (1636), students from more than 80 countries are studying; Stanford University (1891) has students from 76 countries. Even China’s Peking University (1898) has thousands of students from 80 countries.

Generally, in these universities, the faculty-student ratio is 1:10. They have, on an average, 40% students coming from across the country and 20% from outside. On faculty appointments, about 50% come from different parts of country and 15–25% from abroad (these figures contrast with the disappointing regional character of many Indian universities).

World-renowned institutions go the extra mile to attract and retain talent by providing fellowships to students and package of perks to faculty, wherever they originate from. They nurture meritocracy and promote novelty in teaching and research to kindle a quest for knowledge and a thirst for learning. They have an efficient internal machinery for management with absolute autonomy. They practice the twin principles of self-governance and self-reliance.

Globally-recognised universities are not merely teaching-examining-degree distributing ‘shops’. They are vibrant research and learning centres, with their faculty pursuing cutting-edge science and technology often leading to patents, high-impact publications, citation index, Nobel Prizes (Oxford University has 52 such laureates and the corresponding figures for Harvard and Stanford are 48 and 19 respectively), Fields Medals, fellowships of prestigious academies and a host of other international distinctions and recognitions as reviewers, editors, consultants and visiting professors. Besides, these institutions produce job creators and entrepreneurs. For example, Stanford University reported in 2012 that its faculty and alumni together had established multinational companies such as Hewlett & Packard, Yahoo, Google and others generating an income of about $2.7 trillion. The message is that intellectual capital, if nourished, could herald economic prosperity of a nation.

Globally-ranked university faculty are motivators and mentors. By and large, they are performers par excellence. They form multi-faculty, inter-institutional and international research teams for mega projects which when successful yield results of far reaching significance.

Highly-ranked universities have huge endowments, founded by alumni and philanthropists, to support research and development. For example, such corpus funds of University of California, Harvard, Texas, Yale, Stanford, Princeton and MIT were of the order of $100, 40, 26, 24, 22, 21 and 13 billion respectively.

Whereas concerted efforts are made by reputed universities to retain performing faculty, the non-performers are shunted out promptly. Good working conditions for the faculty without external interference, absolute freedom to give one’s best, recognition and encouragement to original path-breaking research, healthy conventions, traditions and rules render them world-class. All issues — academic, financial, personnel and administrative — are addressed internally.

The nomenclature ‘University’ denotes a place with a congenial milieu facilitating universality of learning with the mosaic of multinational, multidisciplinary, multicultural and multireligious faculty and students. Hence, an university literally is distinctly different from a regional institute or centre.

World-class universities manifest an environment that fosters competition, unrestricted scientific enquiry, critical thinking, innovation and creativity. Being armed with freedom, autonomy and competent leadership, they are agile and aggressive and are free from bureaucratic and external impositions.

Indian universities, to make a dent, should have two perspectives. One, national and the other, international. The broader and liberal outlook will facilitate greater mobility of students and faculty from both within and outside the country. Such heterogeneity sets in cross-bridging of thought and scholarship. There is so much to learn and gain from international cooperation and inter-institutional collaboration.

Globally-recognised universities are fine products of evolution rather than of instant creation. The status they enjoy is commanded, not demanded. Our MHRD would do well to grant autonomy to progressive universities as it recently did in the case of the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs).

(The writer is a former vice chancellor, University of Mysore, and president, Forum of Former Vice Chancellors of Karnataka, Bengaluru)

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