#SwatantraOpinion

Creating World-Class Universities


From devising models to contain the spread of COVID-19, to developing vaccines for the novel virus—top Universities have led the global policy response to the pandemic. The fact that Indian Universities have, by comparison, lagged behind—highlights the inadequacy of our British-era University system, and calls for reform. The relatively more successful policy response of countries from South, and South-East Asia has demonstrated that East is not merely the new centre for growth, but also has the potential to emerge as the global hub of ideas. Given that the Indic civilisation has always been a knowledge-venerating one, the crisis gives us an opportunity to work toward creating world-class Universities—that can help us develop a globally relevant powerhouse of employable graduates, and knowledge workers.

Increase research output

If we are to realise our dream of making India emerge as a problem-solver for global problems—our fixation with the British-made collegiate examination system has to make way for globally relevant research output. That the output is lower than global standards, is a fact that cannot be over-stated. In 2017, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) estimated that of all the new patents granted in India—85% are owned by foreign nationals. The underwhelming international reputation of Indian universities can be evidenced from the fact that a lot of Indians themselves tend to pursue advanced degrees from western countries. There is little doubt about the fact that people of Indian origin are greatly responsible for producing the intellectual property in Western nations, which crates much of their national wealth. This, more than anything else—suggests that Indian universities have inhibited the growth of innovation, and creativity.

Synchronise University research with challenges of India

While the larger focus of higher education has to be centred around improving access—some premier Universities need to be developed further, with the goal of producing high quality research. The moral, and economic justification for investing more resources in some high-performing Universities will stem from the utility of their research to the nation. Top-level university research strategies, therefore, need to be synchronised with the challenges of India. Doing this at the zonal level will lead to more proportionate focus on India’s problems; for the challenges of Eastern India are, for instance, very different from those of South India.

Create Knowledge Hubs

The University experience has to be linked, not with examinations, and outdated curriculums—but has to be attached to building a uniquely Indian perspective, which can drive global governance. There is, therefore, a need to create a network of knowledge-based excellence in every zone of the country. Universities in each zone need to be encouraged to build collaborative partnerships with think tanks, and businesses—so as to ensure that their work remains societally, and industrially relevant. Swami Vivekananda once said that all human knowledge proceeds out of experience. There is much to learn from the resilience of India, and universities need to encourage students, to look inwards. Through fellowships and internships, University students need to immerse themselves in the social realities of India—to gain both inspiration, and perspective.

At present, the discourse in our Universities is majorly political, and remains divisive. There is a need to free the narrative from the clutches of outdated political ideologies, which do not resonate with the pulse of a growing nation. The potential of our academic talent can be optimised, therefore, only by promoting a discourse which is shaped by ideas, and innovation. The political, and societal support for more funding to Universities will also increase when they become more solution-centric, and appear less disruptive than what most of them are, at the moment. 

Grant autonomy

Low employability of graduates, inadequate number of teachers, insufficient funding, under-utilisation of campuses, less in-take, and complex regulatory norms—are some of the issues that continue to plague our universities. This makes for a case to free our institutions of higher education, from the clutches of excessive regulation. Under the affiliating University model, many institutions fail to get the requisite administrative, and academic autonomy. This stifles academic growth, in as much as it prevents universities from promoting quality teaching, supporting adequate utilisation of campus space, and improving their international visibility. Regulatory norms of the University Grants Commission (UGC) have, over the years, led to the creation of entry barriers, poor incentive structures, stringent tenure rules, and rigid promotion practices—leading to a limited supply of quality teachers. Ill-equipped affiliating Universities have further failed to recognise the importance of devising a more comprehensive approach to developing selection criteria, and the enrolment remains not merely inadequate in number, but also low in quality. The Delhi University Act, 1922, to take an example, bars its affiliated colleges from becoming autonomous, and has therefore, perpetuated the crisis of Indian university system. For institutes of excellence, decentralisation is the preferred way forward. This will also help in the goal of national integration, in as much as decentralised autonomy will allow institutions to be shaped by Indic culture, local history, and regional languages. Another area of acute concern is funding. State funding has its own limits, and there is, therefore, a need to encourage grants, and endowments from the private sector.

Conclusion

Until early 1990s, Indian Universities arguably had better international reputation than China. This changed drastically, as China undertook game-changing reforms, by launching various initiatives, such as ‘Project 211’ in 1995, ‘Project 985’ in 1998, ‘Plan 111’ in 2006, and the ‘Double First Class University Plan’ in 2015. The pandemic has, once again, given India, the opportunity to reflect over the state of its universities. At a time when India looks to finalise a New Education Policy, and draft a new law to replace UGC as the State regulator, it is critical that we initiate a conversation on how India can look to create Universities of a global standard, over the next few decades. The cultural, social, and geo-political capital which India will earn form resolving the crisis of its University system is enormous, and the question of reform, therefore, deserves the attention of our policy-makers.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Gaurav Sansanwal
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