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Straight Talk: India’s higher education institutions need greater clarity of purpose

In this Straight Talk, Dr. Pushkar argues that a simple classification of India’s higher education institutions is not enough. The government must define roles and responsibilities to achieve results.
BY Pushkar |   13-11-2018

Muhammad Yunus
Muhammad Yunus, Nobel laureate, in a session with XLRI students

A recent report on Australian higher education has called for a new category of university, focused primarily on teaching. This may seem puzzling at first blush; however, it appears that nearly all Australian universities have, over time, become dedicated to both teaching and research, with the faculty often more preoccupied with the latter at the expense of the former. This shift in priorities is typically brought about by governments and universities chasing world university rankings in which research trumps teaching for improved rankings. What is important to recognize from the report and the Australian experience is that teaching-focused institutions have a big role in a nation’s higher education sector and a diversity of higher education institutions (HEIs) best serves the interests of a nation and its peoples.

In India, the higher education sector is made up of three main kinds of institutions: Teaching institutions (TIs), Teaching-cum-research institutions (TRIs); and Research-focused institutions (RIs). There is nothing ‘new’ or original about these categories. In countries around the world, the higher education sector is approximately organized around these same three categories, even though as the Australia example suggests, the importance of TIs has declined in some cases. The three kinds of institutions have specific roles and for a nation’s education sector to flourish, each of the three must play their designated roles.

TIs: With growing prosperity and modernization, larger numbers of young people seek college degrees. This happened decades ago in prosperous Western countries and is now happening across Asia and Africa. India is a good example. Since 2010, the gross enrolment ratio (GER) has jumped from 19.4% to 25.8%. There are now 36.6 million students enrolled at various colleges and universities. Approximately 80% of them are in undergraduate programmes. Millions more are seeking college degrees. It is obvious that TIs must constitute the backbone of the higher education sector. For that reason, a majority of HEIs must be teaching-focused to prepare students for their working lives, typically for employment in various sectors of the economy. It is essential therefore that faculty at these institutions are focused on teaching above all else.

TRIs: As more and more young people seek and obtain undergraduate degrees, a growing number of them begin to become interested in master’s programmes and PhDs. In terms of numbers, India is already among the top five countries with 24,300 PhDs (2014) but overall, less than 0.5% of all students are registered for PhDs. TRIs admit post-graduate students, typically at post-graduate departments at various universities and other institutions with or without undergraduate programmes (central universities and the IITs, for example). Faculty at TRIs are expected to do their own research as well as teach post-graduate students and mentor master’s and doctoral students. Considering the size of India’s higher education sector, the total proportion and numbers of students enrolled for PhDs is very small. These numbers need to increase for India to make better progress in research and innovation.

RIs: These are typically small research centres of various kinds, including think tanks, which are spread across the country. The faculty at these institutions is expected to focus on research and on mentoring doctoral students. As with TRIs, the numbers of students at such centres is small, even smaller than TRIs since most of these centres do not typically run master’s programmes. Since faculty in RIs is free of teaching obligations for the most part, they are expected to contribute significantly in research and publishing.

In theory, the role of the three different kinds of HEIs is clearly spelled out. However, neither the government nor university officials and faculty seem to clearly understand the primary functions of the faculty at each of the three types of institutions. In the past, faculty at TIs and even RTIs were primarily teaching-focused and the amount and quality of research at RIs was not particularly impressive.

The University Grants Commission (UGC) introduced the Academic Performance Indicators (APIs) with research components in 2010 with the intention of improving the research performance of India’s higher education sector. But rather than target RTIs and RIs, the APIs were applied to TIs as well, even though the primary task of the faculty there is to teach. What this led to is the proliferation of fake research and publications in predatory journals. Overall, India’s research output has improved only modestly in the post-API era. Sadly, despite some tinkering, the API remains in place.

The UGC needs to bring greater clarity about the role of TIs, RTIs, and RIs and try to achieve a much better balance between them. Given India’s large young population, it is imperative that TIs focus on teaching. But at the same time, India aspires to count as a great power and great powers are also higher education powers. India is far from being one yet and to get there, it must among other things, improve its research capabilities and performance. Therefore, the UGC must simultaneously attempt to better reorient the higher education sector so that faculty at RTIs and RIs do more research and better research, in addition to teaching master’s students and mentoring the next generation of teachers and researchers in their doctoral programmes. At the moment, what is really missing – other than the lack of clarity about the role of TIs - is the lack of sufficient accountability in terms of research output at the RTIs and RIs. A start has been in that direction with the UGC preparing a list of legitimate journals and coming up with new anti-plagiarism rules but both these initiatives need to be tweaked further in order to make them effective.


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Pushkar is Director, The International Centre Goa (ICG). He tweets at @PushHigherEd. The views expressed here are personal.

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