Building World-class Universities in India: Civil Services Mentor Magazine - March 2014


THERE is today a serious debate on the need for Indian universities to be in the top 200 universities of the world and the urgency of seeking reforms that will pave way for promoting excellence in higher education
and research. The issue of deterioration in the academic standards in most Indian universities is indeed a matter of concern. A more serious aspect of the problem facing the universities in India is in relation to the lack of availability of outstanding faculty members who are inspiring teachers and rigorous researchers.

In this context, there is a need to understand and reflect upon what is needed to build world-class universities in India. How are they established, nurtured and developed over the years, decades and centuries? What makes a university world class? What ought to be the parameters to assess the quality of universities and whether they should vary from society to society? What ought to be the internal governance structure of those universities? What should India do to build world-class universities?

World-class universities are built on the basis of a strong foundation that has an inspiring vision and a mission to fulfil the vision. The vision should reflect the ideals and aspirations of the university. Universities should be created with a strong vision that is built around the needs of a society. But these needs ought to be broad based and should reflect the collective imagination of a community. Universities are inherently pluralistic in nature, where there is diversity of disciplines and perspectives. The vision of a university should reflect that pluralism, while recognizing that there is no one model of a university.

Indian universities need to reexamine their founding vision on the basis of which they were established. It helps to articulate a vision of the university even after many years of its establishment, as the vision will help in galvanizing the academic consciousness among faculty, students and staff towards fulfilling a set of goals and objectives. The vision of the university should incorporate a farsighted approach towards learning and imagination among faculty and students, but be fully conscious of the reality of the university’s existing challenges.

Universities don’t become world-class institutions as soon as they are created, but evolve to become world-class through long years of work pursued by the commitment and dedication of students, faculty and staff. Even then, promoting excellence is an evolving project and that is why the vision of the university helps shape its present and future.

World-class universities around the world are established and developed through a great deal of commitment of resources. The question of funding of Indian universities is inevitably connected to the role of state and regulatory bodies. There is a crying need for major reforms that can address the crisis that prevails due to acute shortage of funding and availability of resources. The Indian university landscape has a range of actors: state government funded public universities, central government funded public universities, state private universities, deemed univer-sities and many other colleges in the form of degree awarding institutions.

The current system of one size fits all policy of funding and resource allocation on the basis of this classification of universities needs to be reexamined. The existing hierarchies of classifications for funding and resources have not been able to identify properly the true potentiality of Indian universities to become quality institutions. Every aspect of funding and resource allocation, ranging from tuition fee, scholarships for students, infrastructure in universities, faculty salaries, library development, research funding, including research infrastructure, endowments and philanthropy and many other issues for which substantial resources are required, needs a thorough re-examination.

There is not enough understanding and realization that the resources that are required to build world-class universities are significant. Arguably, the precious resources that need to be available for universities may not, and indeed, cannot come from the state. It is in this context that there is a need for promoting private universities in India. Deterioration in the academic standards of public universities in India is due to a number of factors, including, but not limited to poor infrastructure at our university campuses, lack of motivation among faculty to perform, inability of universities to create a research environment for faculty publications, absence of interdisciplinary programmes for the students, lack of innovation in curriculum and course design, inadequate compensation for faculty and faculty development initiatives, and a bureaucratic and hierarchical governance structure that does not motivate faculty members to perform.

The establishment of private universities in India did not lead to positive changes in the quality of education. Rather, private universities in general in India have been, unfortunately, equated with all the problems of the public universities. In addition, many private universities tend to be engaged in malpractices that have undermined the reputation of private university education. They have fostered a culture of mediocrity and dubiousness, both of which have led to adverse consequences for higher education.

There is thus, need for a paradigm shift in the availability of funding and resources. For example, resources for pursuing research, knowledge creation leading to publications should not be given on the basis of whether a university is public or private. It should be based upon the nature of faculty and research capacities that prevail in the university and how best to augment those available resources with a view to advancing the research agendas.

The role of the government in higher education and university governance deserves a serious examination. At present, the role of the government in the case of state universities is significant and the higher education department of the state government is deeply involved in every aspect from the creation of the university to granting of approvals and permissions that need to be obtained for administering the university. This poses serious problems for university governance. The existing framework for the establishment of a university (public and private) in India requires legislation passed in the state legislative assembly or the national Parliament or through a decision of the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India. There are elaborate procedures in place led by the higher education departments within the state government that are involved in every aspect of institution building even before the creation of the university. While this is desirable, there is a need to recognize that once the university is established, the role of the government departments and agencies will have to undergo a significant change.

They ought to become facilitators and ensure autonomy and independence of the universities, so that the institutions are able to grow on their own. The need for seeking approvals and permissions from government departments for starting new academic programmes or new disciplines should be dispensed with so that the internal governance mechanisms of the university are activated to work effectively.

A serious concern for the higher education policy makers and educationists is the need to maintain high academic standards. There is a fear that in the absence of external checks and balances, universities will exercise powers in an arbitrary manner and offer courses and programmes which are devoid of academic content. This argument is problematic at different levels: first, it distrusts the university as an academic institution which is expected to act with a sense of responsibility; second, it creates an atmosphere of suspicion and animosity where faculty members of a university, who are expected to take critical decisions relating to the academic programmes, are not in a position to drive the academic agenda; and third, it creates opportunities for vested interests and corruption at the level of government departments exercising such powers.

A better way to deal with this problem is to make the process of establishing a university more rigorous and transparent. The necessary conditions that need to be fulfilled to create a university should reflect the highest academic standards, availability of qualified faculty members and the necessary resources and objective measures to assess the bonafide intentions of the promoters of private universities. After the decision to establish a university is taken the government’s role should be one of a facilitator and not that of a regulator. There is a need to empower departments, faculties and internal governance mechanisms within Indian universities so that they are able to take responsibility and are duly accountable for their decisions. Steadily, the role of government departments in the decision-making of the university should be negligible, if at all.

World-class universities are not developed through government departments exercising powers over institutions; they are nurtured only when faculty members, students, staff and other stakeholders of the university are able to take decisions about the university in an independent and transparent manner.

One of the significant challenges of Indian universities is the role and responsibilities of regulatory bodies such as the University Grants Commission (UGC), Bar Council of India (BCI), Medical Council of India (MCI), All Indian Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and such other bodies. On the one hand, there is a need to ensure quality in universities and higher education institutions for which some degree of regulatory assessment and external accountability is essential. On the other, if we don’t achieve the right balance, there is a serious risk of regulatory capture where higher education policies will not be driven by innovation and creativity in institution building, but by bureaucratic timidity, archaic rules and regulations and callous indifference of the regulatory bodies, besides nepotism and outright corruption.

The current approach stifles innovation and creativity in the Indian university system where the regulatory bodies play a significant role in many aspects of university governance. Besides the more pivotal role that the regulatory bodies play in the inspection of universities to determine their suitability and worthiness for state funding, these bodies are also constantly involved in formulating policies that have a direct impact on the governance of universities. Given the fact that there are over 650 universities in India, there is little scope for any consultation whatsoever before any set of rules or regulations are drafted by the regulatory bodies and made uniformly applicable to all institutions.

As a result, a good deal of the time of the vice-chancellors and registrars of Indian universities is devoted to ensuring that they are in compliance with these rules and regulations. Indian regulatory bodies tend to exercise enormous powers, often in an arbitrary manner. Arbitrariness in the exercise of regulatory powers of higher education regulators has adversely affected the public image and reputation of these bodies. Their role and responsibilities have been challenged, primarily because of the lack of trust in the ability of regulatory bodies to perform the tasks of a facilitator.

There is no doubt that there are serious instances of malpractice prevailing in the higher education sector. There are unscrupulous higher education providers who are engaged in illegal and unethical practices, which affect the interests of the students. But when regulatory bodies paint the general institutional culture of all universities and colleges in the same manner as they would of dysfunctional institutions, there is a problem. It not only affects the morale of good institutional endeavours, but also creates a cynical environment where innovation cannot occur. World-class universities need a free, liberal and facilitative environment. Of all the significant inputs that go into the making a world-class university, it is necessary to recognize that the faculty is the most important and indeed the most significant. Outstanding faculty members who can make great substantive contributions to teaching and research create world-class universities. It is only by hiring and retaining inspiring teachers and rigorous researchers that we can hope to establish world-class universities in India. At best, most Indian universities are largely teaching institutions. The focus of the academic agenda is to be engaged in teaching and the faculty members tend to teach a disproportionately higher number of hours in a week. This has undermined any possibility for the faculty members to be engaged in research and publication.

Indian aspirations to build world-class universities ought to centre around the hiring of faculty from India and overseas. Globalization has created new opportunities for Indian academics to be able to move around the world and India is not their only option to pursue serious academic careers. In fact, many graduates from universities in India seek higher education opportunities around the world and even if some of them choose to come into academia, they rarely decide to work in India. There are a number of reasons why Indian universities are not in a position to attract very bright graduates across disciplines to come into academia in India, but this situation is changing with new opportunities.

C. RAJ KUMAR (Seminar)

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