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Regular-article-logo Wednesday, 24 July 2024

The 'search' for eminence

India's dream of translating its global economic presence into the knowledge spheres has seen mixed results. As the world's third largest economy (in purchasing power parity terms), it is odd that corresponding improvements in development indicators, especially education, are absent. In 2017, India ranked 131 in the United Nations human development index out of 188 countries. In the Times Higher Education World University Rankings of 2018, only 30 Indian higher educational institutions featured in the top 1000 and none in the top 250. In the QS World University Rankings of 2018, only 20 HEIs feature in the top 1000 and only 3 in the top 250.

TT Bureau Published 30.11.17, 12:00 AM

India's dream of translating its global economic presence into the knowledge spheres has seen mixed results. As the world's third largest economy (in purchasing power parity terms), it is odd that corresponding improvements in development indicators, especially education, are absent. In 2017, India ranked 131 in the United Nations human development index out of 188 countries. In the Times Higher Education World University Rankings of 2018, only 30 Indian higher educational institutions featured in the top 1000 and none in the top 250. In the QS World University Rankings of 2018, only 20 HEIs feature in the top 1000 and only 3 in the top 250.

Evidently, India, with the third largest education system in the world after the United States of America and China, lacks the global institutional presence matching its economic status. Why this dismal showing by a country of this size, talent and economic prowess and what can we do to change things? It is widely recognized that the higher education system in India is collapsing: this is not just a problem at the top but spreads across all levels of education, school onwards. Numerous solutions have been suggested to catapult India's presence to the forum of the world's top ranking universities.

The idea of creating world-class HEIs has been on the University Grants Commission's agenda as a recommendation of the National Knowledge Commission for almost a decade. The eleventh plan of the government had envisaged the establishment of 14 "world-class" HEIs in India. There is now a proposal to allocate up to Rs 20,000 crore for establishing 20 HEIs as 'institutions of eminence' (equally divided among the private and the public sector). Why an equal number of private and public HEIs will be selected is not clear since in the National Institute Ranking Framework 2017 only five private HEIs feature in the top 20 and only 13 in the top 50.

The promotion of a small number of HEIs is an island approach. Apart from creating some elite HEIs, its impact on nation-building is doubtful. Critics have pointed out that such a strategy has the potential to fail. A set of world-class HEIs would need to stand on a broad-based, well-performing higher education system that feeds into and from each other rather than by stand-alone HEIs.

The human resource development ministry's proposal for creating IoEs does recognize the long-standing problem of India's HE sector - finance and institutional flexibility. While this strategy may open the purse strings for these 20 elite HEIs, it would still not address the issue of governance deficit in HEIs. State universities limit student entry and faculty recruitment to domicile requirements and lack not only an international outlook but also a national feel by curbing competition. Internal hiring that is common in India effectively blocks the entry of new ideas and seeks subservience among students. Hiring of vice-chancellors and directors is a political decision. The interference of politicians in the governance of HEIs in India is not new; it has led to great institutions being decimated. Presidency University is a classic example. The institution saw a systematic decimation due to political interference. Efforts to revive it as an independent university have floundered so far. Only time will tell if Jawaharlal Nehru University will go the same way (though it would be unfair to compare the two institutions).

The governance deficit in HEIs has its impact on institutional management and pursuit of research. The UGC undertakes frequent changes in rules and regulations. Sometimes universities do not have the institutional ability to implement them. And, on other occasions, HEIs simply ignore directions knowing that the UGC is handicapped, with hardly any mechanism to ensure that its directions are adhered to. Mechanisms like NIRF and NAAC, their lacunae notwithstanding, would hopefully bring some transparency to the HE system.

One other issue that plagues the Indian HE system is the lack of transparency and visibility in research output. Most well-known international HEIs place their publications and their student theses in digital repositories to showcase original ideas in the global knowledge community. Some have created their own institutional repositories while others are participants in multi-HEI aggregators. For example, the British Library hosts theses submitted in the United Kingdom and the ProQuest is host for HEIs of 88 countries, including US universities. In India, the UGC had mandated in 2009 that before awarding the PhD degree, it is the responsibility of every university to submit the thesis to its central agency for uploading on 'Shodhganga', an open access repository.

The UGC is currently undertaking the exercise of identifying 20 IoE. One of the eligibility conditions is that they should be in the top 50 of the NIRF ranking. About a quarter of the top 50 HEIs (NIRF 2017) did not have a single thesis uploaded for the six-year period in Shodhganga. Of the top 100 HEIs, a quarter did not have a single thesis uploaded on this repository and 26 more HEIs had less than 50 theses listed to their credit for this period. If more than half of the top 100 universities in our country (in the last six years) have not uploaded their theses even when it is mandatory, are we ready to seek eminence and have a place in the global project of knowledge creation?

The UGC has now called for fresh applications from HEIs to be recognized as IoEs. Apart from the debate about selecting a small number of HEIs for exclusive privileges, there are concerns regarding the selection process. On the face of it, the process seems transparent and competitive till one realizes that the processing fee is one crore rupees. Most public HEIs would not be able to afford this and be deterred to even apply.

The need for such a strategy and process is debatable since the set of HEIs that could be eminent is small and their capabilities well-known. It begs the question whether we really are in search of eminence.

P. Mukhopadhyay, M.P. Tapaswi and P.K. Sudarsan

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