India Needs to Stop Obsessing Over IITs

When people discuss higher education in India, they often talk about what is happening at IITs and IIMs. Once in a while, people talk about NITs or the internal politics of Delhi University. India's barely functional universities are elephants in the room - direly in need reform and rejuvenation, and yet largely missing from public imagination. 

Understandably, Education Minister Smriti Irani has also largely focused on IITs and IIMs within her higher education portfolio. These institutions take in less than 20,000 students a year all put together, and are currently in a shape where they can largely take care of themselves. Even if Education Ministers were to largely let IITs and IIMs cruise on autopilot for the next decade, India will be just about fine. 

Where India desperately needs someone in the cockpit is in rescuing our universities from oblivion and irrelevance. According to the UGC, India has almost 25 million students enrolled in higher education - with an intake of about 5 or 6 million students a year. Those who graduate are far from employable, and most struggle to participate in the modern Indian economy. 

While the challenge of overhauling this system is gargantuan, a sizeable start would be to set up 30 top-notch universities across India - with each of them housing 40,000 to 50,000 students. Instead of a focus on ten to twenty thousand engineering graduates from IITs , let's focus instead on quarter of a million graduates from across disciplines. 

There are about five broad things that MHRD will need to enable to rejuvenate the Indian university system. 

First, Indian universities need a management overhaul. Politically-appointed Vice Chancellors have limited mandates and incentives to reform universities. CEOs with budgets and a mandate to revamp varsities are essential. CEO-led teams are needed to improve infrastructure, curriculum and most importantly, create an institutional ethos - even if they have to do it department by department. Some of these efforts are already underway, but need greater articulation and thrust.

Second, India has a pigeonholed education system where engineering students and academia have little to do with the science stream which has little to do with arts and commerce. Harmonizing the streams and providing a common academic system can have scale effects. For example, within a university, one can do away with a separate Physics department that teaches only engineering students, or a separate English department that teaches only Commerce students. Having common departments can aggregate faculty talent, improve teaching quality, allow for a better flow of ideas and provide better career paths for academics. 

Third, India needs to bring high-quality research back into the university system. Over the years, India has set up a few hundred research institutes and labs across the country, such as the CSIR institutions that operate across the country. This has forced the nation's best research far away from the universities and students in general. Academic curricula change slowly - but university teaching faculty need to be exposed to cutting-edge research and be familiar with what is happening at the frontiers of their field. Without knowing what is hot and exciting, how can teachers inspire their students? At the same time, we also want India's top researchers to play a larger role in mentoring undergraduates, PhD students and post-doctoral scientists. While not all good researchers make good teachers, having them share an ecosystem is essential. It is no accident that Harvard and Stanford in the USA and Oxford and Cambridge in the UK are known for both their undergraduate programmes and their research.

Fourth, Indian universities need to attract and hire better faculty - and also inculcate better processes for their appraisal, rewarding performance with financial and other benefits. The academic talent pool is global - and Indian universities need to hire globally in order to be competitive. Most university ranking metrics look at the international nature of students and faculty - they are often a proxy for whether the university system favours talent and ability over other considerations. 

Fifth, there is no reason for the Government of India to be alone in rejuvenating universities. Domestic private actors and international educational institutions must be encouraged to set up full-fledged universities in the country. The government's role here can shift from control over inputs to a monitoring of outcomes, of whether students are learning, and are employable upon graduation. The government also has a role to play in increasing the contestability of university and college options, so that prospective students have a better sense of what they can expect once they enroll. Private higher education in India today suffers from excessive input regulation and insufficient contestability - where educational quality is not always recognized or rewarded.

A recent ranking by Times Higher Education of the best universities of BRICS and emerging economies shows three from China, three from Turkey and one each from Brazil, Taiwan, Russia and South Africa in the top 10. If India's education minister prioritises the resuscitation of Indian universities, India could enter that list by 2019. 

(Pavan Srinath is the head of policy research at the Takshashila Institution, an independent think tank and school of public policy, based in Bangalore.)

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