Indian Universities And The Problematic Race For Eminence

The penchant for "standing first in class" does not affect only students, it has infected academic institutions as well as they strive to be designated an "institution of eminence" by the government. The race towards eminence was announced by the government in 2017, out of apparent pique that none of our higher education institutions ranked among the top global institutions. In the budget speech of 2016, then Finance Minister Arun Jaitley promised to provide "an enabling regulatory architecture" so that "ten public and ten private institutions" would emerge "as world-class Teaching and Research Institutions". 

The "detailed scheme" to overcome this very embarrassing situation was to create a coveted label of "eminence". This would be awarded to the winners of a great competition in which all aspirants would take part by parading their vision, goals, commitments, strategies and, of course, achievements. 

An "empowered" committee of four eminent persons was convened to judge this competition. The committee has, as its members, an election commissioner as its chief and three academics - one Indian and two from the US. Apparently, we did not have a sufficiently large pool of academics within the country to choose from. Or perhaps it was felt that the guiding hand of academics from countries whose institutions were present in abundance at the very top of global rankings is essential to run this competitive scheme. (To the best of our knowledge, though, the US government does not conduct any such competition for its own universities.)

The committee's recommendations are then vetted by the University Grants Commission, the august body that oversees nearly the entire higher education system in India. It recommends a "final" list to the Human Resources Ministry. 

The scheme envisages a grant of Rs 1,000 crore (or 50 to 75% of the projected requirement, whichever is lower), spread over five years, to a public institution that earns the eminence tag. No such grant is given to private universities who also have to pay a "processing fee" of Rs 1 crore (yes, you heard that right; perhaps some of it is refunded to losers?) to participate in the competition. All institutions of eminence are "granted" the freedom to fix their fee, design their courses, hire international faculty and admit foreign students without any approvals from the government or its regulatory agencies. The institutions of eminence are expected to find a place in the top 500 globally within ten years of being granted the tag. 

Most of these freedoms are already enjoyed by the IITs, IISc, IISERs etc - a tiny number of public institutions at the top of the heap. For private institutions, these are freedoms they are desperate for. The question of "freedom" (or autonomy) is complex, given that the UGC's rigid rules are designed to "regulate" the combination of incompetence and high fees that is exhibited by many teaching shops masquerading as colleges. A side effect is that this stranglehold also chokes the freedom of the few genuine private universities.

The first bunch of winner institutes were declared in July 2018. The results were mired in controversy because the "eminence" tag had been awarded to the Jio institute which did not exist. The government claimed that such an award had been made under the "greenfield" category i.e. an institute where its promoters "show promise" of setting up a world class institution. 

Another set of awardees has just been announced. This time, the universities that have been left out include the Azim Premji University, Ashoka University, KREA University, Indian Institute for Human Settlements and the Indian Institute of Public Health, ostensibly on the grounds that they have never placed in any global or national rankings. From among the public universities, Tezpur, Panjab and Andhra Universities were left out as they are not ranked globally, and Savitribai Phule Pune University and Aligarh Muslim University also did not make it, though Benares Hindu University did, as it was higher placed than the other two in the India rankings. Apparently the "procedure" followed was to look at the QS 2020, QS 2019 and NIRF rankings of institutions to decide whether they outperformed others or not. We also have another greenfield institute this time, the Satya Bharti Foundation (Airtel's philanthropic arm).

What advantage does the "eminence" tag provide to non-existent (private) universities? They will be born without the shackles placed by government or other regulatory bodies on the basis of the fact their promoters have land and financial resources! It is quixotic to award the "eminence" label to such not-yet-established institutes while denying these benefits to universities that have at least some record to show that they have done well in their first few years. 

Further, it is not clear how institutions are shortlisted by the empowered committee. How does the committee process the data that is collected through the application form? Apart from administrative data, sections III and IV & V (of Part 1) ask for "Vision for Eminence" and "Strategic Plan", respectively. Academic data related to publications, research grants, patents, honors & awards, interdisciplinarity are sought in sections IV & V (Part 3). All of this data is simply in the form of lists where the only thing that can be done, by a committee, is to count numbers. There is hardly any way to assess the quality of the entries (e.g. quality of a paper, or patent or a research grant). Using these metrics, based mostly on bean counting, to award eminence is not an encouragement to excellence, it is an incentive to mass mediocrity - a path full of incremental, routine research. Institutions treading this path may become prolific producers of run-of-the-mill papers and patents but may not invent anything significant or do any path-breaking research. Surprisingly, there is no mention of data relating to what sort of placement was offered to students or what sort of jobs they were offered or that related to students who went on to higher studies. There is nothing recorded on teaching and the quality of teachers, alumni feedback, and students in leadership positions of different types. This kind of information should be essential to judge the potential for eminence of an institution. 

Given the nature and magnitude of this selection exercise, a committee of four persons is too small. It should have included eminent academics from within the country who have a feel for how the "system" operates as well as its shortcomings. This would have facilitated a more realistic decoding of the grand narratives that applicant institutions are likely to present as a part of their vision and strategies. It is puzzling to observe that the recommendations of the empowered committee can be "tweaked" by the UGC and/or the ministry, apparently using "additional" criteria.

Some of the private universities that did not make the cut this year were excluded on the grounds that they had not appeared in the global rankings so far - so why were their applications accepted? Why not, then, just use global rankings to award the eminence tag, and why this whole rigmarole? Such discretion to "tweak" the lists after the decision of the empowered committee dents the credibility of the whole exercise.

We must also ask deeper questions. Should a country pursue the objective of "getting its universities ranked" rather than focus on the substantive factors that constrain its institutions? It reflects the same attitude that we decry in our students - the obsession to "top", crack examinations like the JEE, without much heed to how much they are learning. Ironically, schemes of this kind often serve to provide an illusion "that the problem is being solved". The fact that public institutions are being offered financial support also betrays the perspective that a problem can be solved by simply throwing money at it. Sure, more money is always welcome (new hostels can be built, dilapidated buildings can be repaired - infrastructure in many good public institutions is in a shambles), but it may not necessarily address the real bottlenecks. Just like making superbly expensive buildings does not make a great institution if the buildings are populated by mediocre people. 

Almost in all academic institutions, a lack of the availability of good faculty is a severe constraint in hiring. The situation is further compounded by the lack of good research scholars which severely hinders quality research. There are plenty of students in graduate programmes but only a handful have overcome the consequences - poor fundamentals and lack of creativity - of being schooled in a rote learning system. The situation becomes tremendously worse as we move from the tiny set of top institutions to the next tier of institutions, including old private universities, characterized largely by mediocre faculty. This results in poor teaching, low quality of research grant proposals (often plagiarized), leading to very few approvals for funding, pedestrian research and substantial publishing in predatory/paid/junk journals. How can the "Institution of Eminence" scheme get us out of this trap?

(Anurag Mehra is a Professor of Chemical Engineering and Associate Faculty at the Center for Policy Studies, at IIT Bombay.)

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