The Government of India’s (GoI) recent announcement on “Institutes of Eminence” is facing unprecedented backlash. However, the debate is missing the point. Nothing short of urgent and comprehensive reforms is needed to transform India’s broken higher education system.
There is widespread anger, dismay, and frustration with the Government of India’s (GoI) decision on the “Institutes of Eminence.” Many are wondering how Jio Institute, a university that is yet to be established, BITS Pilani, and Manipal Academy of Higher Education have received the much-coveted status that several higher ranked institutions such as IIT Kharagpur, IIT Madras, and IIT Kanpur did not. Many are calling this decision “rigged” in favor of Reliance & Jio’s Mukesh Ambani. The GoI has offered several clarifications on this controversial decision. At least one person has called the decision courageous.
At the heart of the maelstrom appear to be three fundamental questions. One, did the GoI make the right decision in granting a greenfield university the Institute of Eminence status? Two, was the selection process fair to all applicants? Three, could the GoI have given this status to additional existing colleges and universities?
Great questions. Wrong debate
Within the narrow context of the GoI’s decision, these are excellent questions. However, in the larger context of India’s demographics and its grand challenges, this is a wrong debate to be having.
India needs 100 world-class multidisciplinary and comprehensive research and teaching universities such as Stanford, UC Berkeley, and Harvard. Even after 70 years of independence India does not have even one world-class multidisciplinary research university. And just one university—IISc Bangalore—was ranked in the Top 500 of Global Rankings.
India also urgently needs to address the extreme shortage of excellent higher education institutions. India is a young population of 1.3 billion people with fifty percent below the age of 25 years. Further, there are 20-26 million children born every year. Thus, in the next 35-50 years, India has to prepare and educate 700 million to 1.3 billion young men and women for their lives and careers. This is India’s defining challenge and opportunity of the 21st century.
In a global and knowledge economy, more than ever before, higher education is going to provide a critical foundation for a fulfilling life and career. A vibrant higher education system is also an enabler for a much-needed research, innovation, and start-up ecosystem.
The central issue
So then, the crux of the matter is to urgently address India’s higher education crisis.
One of the biggest contributors to this crisis is the shackling of colleges and universities with British Raj rules, regulations, and mindset.
We have a License Raj and Inspection Raj in higher education. Gurcharan Das in India Unbound captures the impact of the License Raj: “The endless delay in clearing applications discourage the entry of efficient and honest entrants and rewarded wily, inefficient producers who could manipulate the system. It raised costs, brought delays, arbitrariness, and corruption, and achieved nothing. We killed at birth any hope for an industrial revolution.” Das was talking about License Raj in industry.
Das might as well be speaking about higher education, which is managed by a wide variety of narrowly focused regulatory agencies such as: the University Grants Commission (UGC), the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), the Indian Nursing Council (INC), the Bar Council of India (BCI), the Central Council of Homeopathy (CCH), the Council of Architects (CoA), the Dental Council of India (DCI), the Distance Education Council (DEC), the Medical Council of India (MCI), the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE), the Pharmacy Council of India (PCI), and the Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI). This is a long list of organizations that must approve the creation and management of a university.
Fortunately, it is clear from the GoI’s “Institutes of Eminence” scheme that they have acknowledged that increased autonomy is critical to become world-class and there is a need to provide additional funding to make public universities competitive. In this scheme, the selected public universities—IISc Bangalore, IIT Bombay, and IIT Delhi—will receive Rs. 1000 crores (approximately $150 Million) each to boost their transformation. Private universities—BITS Pilani, Manipal, and Jio—will not receive any public funding. Finally, both public and private universities will receive increased autonomy.
Competition matters and is the key for transforming India’s higher education system. Competing for faculty, students, financial resources, and prestige spurs institutions around the world and their faculty members to be creative, work hard, have a sense of urgency, and focus on problems and opportunities that matter to society.
Spurred by a desire to be “Harvard of the West (coast),” Stanford transformed itself from an average regional university in the 1940s to a world-class research university by the 1960s. Stanford’s rise to eminence was a result of a compelling vision, thoughtful strategy, excellent execution, and hard work of its leadership, faculty members, staff, students, alumni and extended community. Stanford has earned its eminent status from stakeholders around the world. In 2017, Stanford was ranked #2 in the Top 500 of Global Rankings.
A better way forward for India
In light of the importance and urgency of transforming India’s higher education system, lessons from around the world, it is clear that there is a better way forward for the nation.
- To unshackle the higher education system quickly and at scale: integrate the regulatory agencies to create a single-window for establishing new universities, eliminate unnecessary functions of these agencies, and realign their responsibilities.
- To spur hundreds of universities and thousands of colleges to improve their level of excellence: give all higher education institutions complete autonomy. Let them all compete and get better. In tandem with increased transparency and accountability on outcomes, all the stakeholders—students, industry, society and nation—will benefit.
- Encourage 40-50 philanthropists to establish world-class universities: removing the regulatory hurdles for all at the outset, and letting them earn their eminent status from stakeholders, just like Stanford and all world-class universities have done, is far more effective and equitable.
- Create a new agency that provides research funding on merit to faculty members in both public and private universities. This is a well-accepted practice around the world. Peer-reviewed by experts in respective fields, the increased research funding will spur competition between faculty members and institutions, catalyze India’s research and innovation ecosystem, and accelerate solving the nation’s grand challenges.
India’s economy has grown at a faster pace after being unshackled from the License Raj in the 1990s. The middle-class has grown and prospered, the GDP per capita has increased, and millions have come out of extreme poverty.
It is time to unshackle India’s higher education system from the British Raj rules, regulations, and mindset. With a tsunami-scale wave of youth at the gates of higher education, India cannot afford to transform the system six Institutes of Eminence at a time. It is time to make urgent and comprehensive reforms. Now.
[Note: This article includes abstracts from the book “Building Golden India: How to Unleash India’s Vast Potential and Transform Its Higher Education System. Now.” The author and publisher have given permission to The Logical Indian to reproduce these materials.]
About the author:
Shail Kumar is the Founder and President of Nalanda 2.0 (www.Nalanda2.org), author, and former administrator, UC Berkeley and UC San Diego.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to several Nalanda 2.0 volunteers who reviewed the article and gave valuable comments.
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