Critique of plans to create world-class universities

Context

  • In 2017-2018 Budget of Karnataka Government, announced that they would build a ‘world-class’ university named “Bengaluru Dr B.R.Ambedkar School of Economics” (BASE), will be modelled on the lines of London School of Economics (LSE).
  • Apart from that, even Central Government announced a year earlier that they would establish 20 world-class universities which will enjoy greater academic and financial autonomy with the University Grants Commission (UGC) having no control over their functioning.


Central Government’s plan


  • The government will identify 10 government and 10 private universities and help them achieve “world-class standards.
  • The draft regulations for these were called the ‘UGC (Declaration of Government Educational Institutions as World Class Institutions) Guidelines, 2016.
  • The institutes would be called the ‘Institutes of Eminence’

The Universities would have

  • A place in the top 500 in any renowned ranking system
  • Accreditation by a reputed international agency
  • Faculty-student ratio not less than 1:20 over 3 years of establishment
  • Excellent laboratory facilities and cutting edge research
  • Teaching and research collaborations with reputed international universities
  • At least two publications in each discipline in a reputed peer-reviewed journal every year etc.

Criticism of the Plans


  • World class universities or institutions of eminence cannot be built overnight or legislated into existence.
  • There is nothing new about the current government’s initiative to promote world class universities. The UPA government had earlier tried the same with its Universities for Research and Innovation Bill, 2012, to set up 14 world class universities with autonomy from the UGC and other regulatory bodies, and failed.
  • To create a separate category of universities that will be independent of the UGC and other regulatory bodies, both the UPA and the NDA governments have effectively admitted that the UGC is an obstacle to building good universities and for higher education in general. So we could let go of UGC instead of creating a separate category.

Nevertheless, since our government has persisted with the idea of creating new universities, let us understand what approach should be followed to build such universities.


How should a world-class university be constituted?


A World Bank report titled The Road to Academic Excellence: The making of world class research universities lays out necessary conditions of creating a world-class institution.

  • The report lists three ‘must’ conditions to be present from the start: academic talent, financial resources, and governance—particularly autonomy and academic freedom.

There are five steps that the government should follow in order to create a World-class university.

  1. Create Right teams:
  • An independent Governing Board that brings together a range of experts;
  • Members of the governing board should be experts in different fields (academics, infrastructure, legal, etc.) and not all economists.
  • The other team required is an operational team to execute which should have two types of people – those who can wade through bureaucracy and those who manage the project.
  • The bureaucrats who have a demonstrated track record of getting things done that require complex interdepartmental coordination and manage political forces pulling in multiple directions would be the right fit.
  • For managing Project progress instead of hiring professors like India does in IITs and IISERs should hire professional managers like the leading universities of the world.
  1. Financial Plan:
  • The government should announce its grant plan for, at least, next 10 years to bring the financial predictability and release an endowment fund.
  • The government should allow the university to set its own fee structure and raise money from the research and other such instrument and give financial autonomy in the spending of their resources.
  1. Road map:
  • Before designing the roadmap they ought to study other universities in India— like the IITs, IIMs, Delhi School of Economics (DSE), Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) etc.
  • Rather than replicating these institutions, it is imperative to be different and stay relevant.
  • Focusing on the needs of the country or the state (in the case of BASE –Karnataka) as relevant- is a must and not just focus on the talent creation.
  • The roadmap should address the journey for next 25 years. The roadmap has the areas like curriculum coverage, content focus along with clear timelines.
  • It is usually better to begin with a small number of students and programmes, then scale up after institutionalising a strong academic culture.
  1. Architectural Design and Construction Plan:
  • Top universities include classroom design in their educational strategy.
  • Physical infrastructure should follow from to the requirements of the roadmap and not the other way around which is usually the case in India.
  • Since Ambedkar School will be a city university, it would be apt for the institution to spread across the city rather than in ‘a campus’. Regionally inspired architectures with a lot of open spaces, libraries—designed as public libraries—in different parts of the city will be good for ‘being with the city’.
  1. Getting the Talent:
  • When all these plans are in place, the university should start attracting academic talents, professors, and then students.
  • Attracting global talent requires clarity. With clear roadmap and content focus, prospective professors understand their fit in the institution
  • The government should relax ‘Indian citizen’ constraint and open the positions for global talents while maintaining the regional balance.
  • Once the teaching faculty comes on board, they can design courses, research labs in line with the vision and mission. In the similar lines, student selection should also be for diversity, starting with diversity in the state itself.
  • Easing the restriction on Salaries of the Professors should be the starting point.

Conclusion


  • The plan of the government is like “we’re going to build a small number of world-class universities which will cater to a really, really small number of students while letting the vast majority to suffer at the hands of the UGC and remain mediocre. You can’t have excellence in a sea of mediocrity.”
  • India needs 125 new universities per year for next five years to meet the demand, we should not focus on building some world-class institutions but not at the cost of neglecting the ones in existence.
  • Reforms have to be brought about in the entire Higher Education sector as such by breaking the shackles of the government restrictions.
This Article was originally written by me for ForumIAS
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