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Gaining brains is the new challenge for the Union human resource development ministry. Who is to get them and how to woo and keep them: these are some of the questions being debated. First, the University Grants Commission, and now a few other universities and institutions, have demanded that the green signal to compete for foreign faculty should be given to all universities and not just to the 14 chosen ones. And the HRD ministry seems to be on its way to complying with this demand. There are some niggling anxieties (what if all the NRI burn-outs end up in India?), but everybody continues to accept unquestioningly that the ministry will run the show. It is this fundamental assumption that needs to be challenged now so that wooing foreign faculty can become freely, and therefore truly, competitive. The government’s role is to remove all the bureaucratic and political barriers to bringing in quality academics from all over the world to teach and do research in India. Once that is done, then the ministry should stand back and watch as the institutions compete among themselves to get the best people.

The ministry could let the competition begin at home, before it goes global. And this should include playing full tilt at poaching quality faculty from institutions within the country. It should be possible to imagine the institutes of technology at Kanpur and Kharagpur vying with each other to work out the best offer for a brilliant candidate in the country. The universities can do this among themselves because they are governed by their own acts. But the Centre continues to keep the IITs under its wing in these matters, and it is now time to shed this kind of overseeing and controlling mindset. The creation of quality infrastructure that would catch the global eye is not just a question of fiscal liberties, but calls for a larger habit of freedom that must begin at the top.

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