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How to build Harvards

The proposal to create a dozen new so-called world-class universities, in addition to 16 new Central universities, seems...

Written by Pratapbhanumehta | August 26, 2008 12:25:22 am

The proposal to create a dozen new so-called world-class universities, in addition to 16 new Central universities, seems, at first sight, to be an important step in expanding quality higher education in India. There is also something encouraging in the fact that at least some of the right phrases are being dropped in discussions of these universities: commitment to excellence, new norms for faculty compensation, commitment to attract talent from abroad, introduction of a credit system, some departures from governance as usual and so forth. But unfortunately, there is good reason to believe that these laudable ideas will eventually be subverted; and that policy-makers have less than a clear grasp of what it takes to build excellent institutions.

The first indication of this is that they simply have not got the trade-off between quantity and quality right. There is, correctly, an emphasis on keeping the universities relatively small by Indian standards, with an average size of about 12,000 students. Most world-class institutions that manage to strike the right balance between the teaching and research requirements of the faculty have a student-faculty ratio of no more than 1:10; often it is even lower. If you build 14 new universities, you are looking for at least a thousand faculty members per university over the next five to seven years. Even if you managed to attract huge quantities of talent from abroad, this is a tall order. The rapid expansion of the IITs is a warning of what might happen; they are struggling for faculty, and in fields where we are relatively well-placed. If any private institution would have said that they will simply run classes out of another existing institution, the AICTE would have cried foul. But we have allowed this for our flagship IITs. Of such stuff are aspirations to excellence made.

Policy-makers have also not understood the advantages of agglomeration effects and the disadvantages of the dispersal of talent. Suppose, for argument’s sake, you can attract 30 to 40 world-class faculty in a particular discipline. If you disperse them over a large number of institutions, it will have two consequences. First, they will be surrounded by mediocre colleagues and hence unable to set their stamp on the institutions. Second, the crucial missing link remedying the shortage of faculty is the quality of PhD programmes. These are the programmes that both determine your ability to be a knowledge producer in the long run and ensure the supply of good faculty. We are facing an acute shortage, because our graduate programmes are in a state of complete meltdown. Good quality faculty, dispersed over a large number of institutions, will not be able to create and control the quality of PhD programmes as they could if they were concentrated in fewer institutions. Those institutions could in turn produce quality PhDs which, over the long run, would service new universities. Therefore, there is a case to be made that if the government wants to get into this enterprise, it should start with two or three really good ones, than labour under the illusion that it can create dozens together.

The mismatch between ends and means is also reflected in financial outlays. Since the number of universities being planned is large, the average outlay per university will not exceed three to four hundred crore over the entire period of the Eleventh Plan, and there is no provision yet for recurring costs. To service just the salaries of a world-class university is more than three to four hundred crore per year. It is not an accident that most universities that are globally competitive in teaching and research require initial investments of upwards of three thousand crore. The state is simply misleading itself if it supposes it can get what it wants with the budgets it has allocated. Doing fewer well would be better than doing too many badly. These universities will have huge negative externalities on existing ones: deplete their faculty even further and starve them of resources. The moral is that our requirements are so huge that properly deregulating the system is important; and the state needs to prioritise rather than expand.

The right slogans are being dropped. But there is reason to be sceptical of whether this will come to pass. Autonomy has many components: institutional, financial, academic, pedagogic. Our old university acts give universities a lot of autonomy; but in the absence of financial independence, these institutions have been corroded by the deleterious sovereignty of the UGC. It is difficult to imagine that the same UGC will now acquire the capacity to imagine what it takes to create world-class universities. It has already proposed centralising admission criteria, an issue that certainly requires more debate.

Bureaucracies can never design great institutions. Even in our great phase of institution-building, the core requirement was this: finding young men and women driven by creative ideas and a passion for education; being intellectually secure enough to attract good talent; making good judgment calls and not succumbing to pressure; and having a commitment to institution-building that went beyond merely a mercenary scramble for position. In retrospect, it is also amazing how young many of those early institution-builders were; how much of a sense they had of having to live with the consequences of what they were building, that universities are fundamentally about the cultivation of intellect and not short-term needs. In our hyper-politicised academic culture it is difficult to envisage how we will empower such individuals.

But apart from the leadership of these institutions, there will have to be an enabling environment where good teams can be put together: think of the number of instances where good individuals have been selected for an institution, only to be subverted by the quality of those nominated to their governing councils. It is difficult to imagine what these new vice-chancellors would do when the norms in the surrounding regulatory structure, HRD, UGC, are so deleterious to morale. The state can, under right conditions, create good institutions. But at the moment it is deeply deluded about the financial, regulatory, political, institutional and leadership preconditions for creating such institutions. It is not even clear yet how identity politics will shape these new universities. Under the present scheme of things, despite some right noises, the expansion seems more like an elaborate job-creation scheme, a temptation to appoint huge numbers of vice-chancellors, than it is about creating excellence.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi

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