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Straight Talk: Can Institutions of Eminence overcome the challenges that lie ahead?

Among other things, they will need to hire and retain quality, research-oriented faculty, and to transform the stifling academic culture that prevails at even top universities in India today.
BY Pushkar |   06-12-2017
File photo of graduates of Christ University, Bangalore
File photo of graduates of Christ University, Bangalore (image by Harsha K.R., used under CC license)

It is quite routine for newspapers, government officials and others to bemoan the absence of Indian universities in the list of top 100 or 200 institutions worldwide. Whether we see ourselves as a ‘rising’/’emerging’/’great power’, the failure of Indian universities to make their mark globally is a national embarrassment.

That is not all, however. The absence of world-ranked universities in the country is leading to, other than brain drain, also a significant drain of wealth.

In 2016-2017, some 190,000 Indian students spent $6.54 billion (Rs 44,000 crore) in the US alone. In all, Indian students spent more than $10 billion abroad. To put things in perspective, during the same period, the central government’s budget for higher education across all universities was only Rs 29,703 crore.

While there are many reasons why Indian students are heading abroad in larger numbers every year, one of the main ones is the absence of world-ranked Indian universities.

Given this larger context, the government’s recent initiative to create a separate category of Institutions of Eminence (IoE) is not only timely but also has the potential to be a game changer for India’s higher education.

Earlier this September, the University Grants Commission (UGC) invited higher education institutions (HEIs), both public and private, to submit their applications in order to be considered for the IoE status. The applications will be accepted until December after which an empowered experts committee (EEC) will take up the task of identifying 10 public and 10 private institutions in the IoE group by March 2018. The selected institutions will be granted unprecedented administrative and financial autonomy by the government in a wide range of matters and will be completely free of UGC regulations. The government will provide up to Rs 1,000 crore to each of the public institutions while private institutions will have access to public funds for research. Curiously, among private institutions, greenfield institutions are eligible to apply for the IoE status.

Universities in the IOE group will be expected to break into the ranks of the world’s top 500 universities in 10-15 years, and eventually into the top 100. Some Indian institutions which are already among the top 500 – the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), the Indian Institute of Technology-Powai (IIT-B); and the Indian Institute of Technology- Delhi (IIT-D) - will be expected to enter the ranks of the top 100 while others such as BITS Pilani, Manipal University and Amity University – likely to be among the 10 short-listed private institutions – will be expected to improve their ranking substantially.

Funding and autonomy will help the cause of the 20 universities with the IoE tag but they will still face big challenges in order to break into or improve their world rankings. Among the many challenges, three stand out more than others.

First, with some exceptions, the elite group of IoE institutions will have to greatly improve upon their past record in terms of the quality of faculty they hire. In particular, they must hire research-oriented faculty above all other considerations in order to improve their world rankings. They also must be able to retain the faculty they hire, more so because other competing institutions in the IoE group will also be on the lookout for capable researchers. The ability to retain faculty will be especially challenging because unlike the previous generation of faculty, the current generation is more willing to move around – within India and globally - in search of better salaries and locations.

Second, a bigger challenge, and which impacts on the first, is how to transform the prevailing academic culture and more generally the ideas, beliefs and values prevailing among students, faculty and administrators. We should not expect that the institutions in the IoE group will shed what has been referred to as a “culture of mediocrity” simply because they will be better-funded and free of UGC regulations. The prevailing culture at even some of the best institutions in the country is stifling, especially for faculty members who have spent substantial amount of time at some of the best universities abroad. Without changes in the academic culture, the task of retaining faculty will be harder and the academic performance of the institution will suffer as well.

Third, it is rather curious that greenfield private institutions have been permitted to apply for the IoE tag. That they should not have been eligible to apply in the first place is another matter. Greenfield institutions will struggle to make headway since they will be, in addition to building their campuses, competing for faculty with others on the basis of the reputation of their sponsors and administrative heads of the institutions alone. The EEC would be wise in excluding them from the list of 10 private institutions.

The emergence of world-ranked universities in India will not resolve India’s higher education woes or even plug the drain of wealth. India’s young people will continue to head abroad for reasons other than the absence of world-ranked institutions in the country. However, world-ranked universities will help boost India’s soft power. They may also over time help bring progress in India’s larger higher education sector.

Dr. Pushkar (@PushHigherEd) is Director, The International Centre Goa (ICG), Dona Paula. The views expressed here are personal.



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