India can have a top class university if it can untangle itself from bureaucratic controls, focus on developing collaborative research, improve infrastructure and encourage hard work, self-confidence and high morale in the university community. The academic community has to take the first steps in advocating this change.
From the East India Company days to today
Most of Indias larger universities are based on the structure devised by the East India Company (EIC) for Universities of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay(1857). In 1857, the three universities were designed as a ploy to avoid an enquiry from the British Parliament about the way huge revenues from India were being misused. Thus, in 1850, while the EIC allocated 15,000 for education, 5,000,000 went to the military. The EICs policy of keeping universities starved of funds and tight bureaucratic control through Directorates of Education continues till today.
At independence, India had some non-affiliating local universities like Indian Institute of Science, Banaras Hindu University etc. Some new universities like Maharaja Sayaji Rao University of Baroda, Gujarat Vidyapeeth, Vansthali University, were added over the years. During the sixties, India established agricultural universities based on the Land Grant model of USA. A number of private self-financed Deemed to be universities came up in the last few decades.
A few years before independence, Sir Ardeshir Dalal and Sir Jogendra Singh, members of the Viceroys Executive Council, proposed the establishment of the NR Sarkar Committee for Development of higher technical institutions of India. In March, 1946, the Committee submitted an interim report on the basis of which a chain of IITs were established from 1951-63. This proved to be really successful. Today in South Asia IITs are the only institutions to be listed in the top-ranking 400 universities of the world. In the QS ranking of 2012 IIT Delhi ranked 218.
How good are our institutes?
Earlier this year in May 2013, Prof. P. B. Sharma, Vice Chancellor of Delhi Technological university said, almost 90% of Indias higher technical education is under private ownership. In so doing, the underlying assumption was that the private ownership shall promote quality and relevance much better than the Institutions under the public ownership system... This objective has however not been realised to a large extent and as such, is a major area of concern.
Manipal, established in 1993, with over 28,000 students is probably the largest and best private university. However, a Scopus based study of 2012 ranks it at a world rank of 1118. In India, among the first 25 Higher Education and Research institutions ranked by the Scopus study, Manipal is the only private institution at rank 194.
No privately-managed institution is able to reach anywhere close to the standards of excellence of the top ten government institutions. Meanwhile even the rankings of government institutions is slipping, since the rest of the world is moving ahead much faster. Thus the gap between excellent institutions in the developed world and Indian universities is just getting wider. During the next two decades, India may have the largest pool of young workers, but they would be very poorly educated as compared to those in the developed world and East Asia.
We have to build universities equivalent to the best, to ensure that our young do not feel handicapped in the flat world of today. Here are some ideas on what can be done.
Remove bureaucratic Control
A study by five professors from Harvard, Stanford and Europe has found that universities can become great only if they are released from bureaucratic control. Universities can sustain themselves at the frontiers of research only if they have the discretionary authority to direct resources and autonomy in managing their budget. The United Kingdom and Sweden have really successful autonomous universities.
K R Narayana Murthy of Infosys has been quoted as saying that directors of IIMs were restrained from travelling abroad for over three decades. No wonder then that in India, internationalisation is only a slogan at seminars, workshops and conferences or used by small, private universities as their sales pitch; in reality, they cannot deal with the rest of the world on an equal footing. The larger state universities are excluded from internationalisationdue to bureaucratic controls.
As a first step, this 156-year-old practice involving complete bureaucratic control over universities should be done away with.
Embrace IT as an enabler
India cannot get rid of poverty if its young cannot contribute to the knowledge society meaningfully. Today, 50 percent or more of students at technological universities graduate with ATKTs (Allowed to Keep Term) all through their studies. The only way to change this is by making our classrooms, laboratories and workshops exciting places for learning. India must embrace IT and convert every space at its universities into a place for active learning.
Universities must become the centre, for scholars, researchers, faculty members and students, and for intelligent leaders from all sectors of society. Active learning processes, including a large immersion-study programme will bring society closer to the university.
Create vibrant networks of research and development
We must also use IT for establishing creative collaboration among groups of faculty members, industries and researchers in scientific establishments in a region. The structure of affiliating-type universities may be used to create networks of Masters and doctoral students and faculty members through policies encouraging collaborative work. Each region should develop the finest research facilities and then work to attract research students and faculty from across the world by providing them the best of facilities.
Self-financed institutions have created excellent infrastructure, while most government institutions have merely designed concrete boxes, in varying stages of disrepair. We should learn from the MITs, Oxfords and Cambridges and provide first-rate infrastructure to our universities. Top-quality libraries, laboratories working facilities, residences, schools and crches should become a regular feature. Of course all this cannot be done without credible micro-policies that encourage and build selfconfidence in the university community.