Do your own thing and do it well

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  •  Dec 12, 2013
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Philip Altbach, Professor, Boston College on why the obsession with world class will not help India

World rankings are driven by research

What we understand to be world class is significantly driven by the rankings. And what the rankings think is world class is mainly measured by research production and global publication. Teaching doesnt enter into it very much because it is very difficult to measure. (The Shanghai Jiao Tong University Ranking, which is quite transparent and done really well, only measures research). So, world class basically translates into research productivity, research influence and research impact. If you look at the top 20 universities in the Shanghai rankings, 17 are American, two are from the UK and one is Dutch. The numbers are roughly the same in the Times Higher Education and other rankings. The universities which feature in the top 50like Caltech, MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Oxford and Cambridgeare on the top because they are research power-houses.

The Shanghai rankings, in partnership with Thomson Reuters, use Web of Science to measure research productivity and research impact. Besides other measures, they also count the number of Nobel Prize winners in the faculty, students and others affiliated with an institution. These measures give tremendous advantage to universities in rich countries, especially the Anglo-Saxon institutions. High salaries at American institutions help them get Nobel Prize winners. America is also very good at stealing brains from other societies as it has very good grad schools that educate smart people from all around the world. A lot of the Nobel Prize winners are not Americans, but have studied in the US. If you look at funding for R&D for higher education, the US spends four times the per cent spent by any of the BRIC countries and about 20 times more than India spends. Universities that are ranked world class are also very good with obtaining funding, both from government agencies and from the industries in their respective countries. They are research machines and very professionally managed. Now, one cant really say that about Indian universities.

 

Obsession with world class wont help India

When I talk to people here, they seem to think that India shouldnt be bothered much about rankings or the concept of world class. I agree with that approach. This is a large country and it has quite specific higher education needs. I do think that a small part of the system at the very top should be looking outward, be part of the global academic community and be concerned about what that community thinks is top class. But in general, even to the top institutions here, I would say, Dont worry too much. Do your thing

and do it well.

Rankings often reflect a particular niche thats relevant in the US but not so relevant elsewhere. For example, I had a visit from a delegation which wanted to set up a world class university in Kazakhstan. And I had to tell them that it was not going to happen in their country. They were ready to spend money, but it is also about human resources, which were very limited in the case of Kazakhstan. To give another example, KAUST University in Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars to build a world class campus near Jeddah and hired international faculty. It had hired the former President of the National University of Singapore as its President, but he quit early.

On the other hand, there are also universities like King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals which are pretty good and have strong international linkages. These examples just illustrate that an obsession with becoming world class wont help. Just doing what needs to be done and doing it well is the way to go.

 

Affiliating universities are Indias Achilles heel

Minister of State for Education, Shashi Tharoor, gave a very insightful talk at the FICCI conference and he summed up the problem of the system here with the words Pinnacles of excellence in a sea of mediocrity.

Some of the problems in higher education here are over bureaucratisation, politicisation of decision-making in local universities, huge numbers of students over-burdening the system, the affiliating system (which is largely unworkable, but cant be dumped) and unaccountability of the faculty. With reference to this last point, I believe that a huge policy mistake was made with the pay raise for faculty. I dont deny that people deserved the pay raise, but that would have been a golden time to insist that the academic profession become accountable and productive. Their performance could have been measured and the pay could have been used as an incentive for hard work. None of that happened. Now, of course, its too late because they will all rise up and go on strike. Thats a weakness of the system.

The Achilles heel of the system is the traditional affiliating universities. People have tried to change it and there have been reports from commission after commission, which have made very good proposals, but none of them have been implemented. Anything that gets the Indian system to shrug off the lethargy of traditional affiliating universities is good.

Now, is it a good thing to have innovation universities in mofussil sort of areas? Is it a clever idea to place some of these central universities in backward areas? I dont think so. I am critical of the idea of using research universities as development projects.

I think there is a case for that and in global terms, India has been successful in placing universities in out-of-the-way places.

Some of these have been for good reasons and some for not so wise reasons, like some local politician trying to set up a campus in his district. But if you think that they will become research centres and move towards being world class, youd be wrong. If you want an institute that can serve local needs, contribute to development in the region and hopefully provide an actual education

in addition to degrees to the local population, its a fine idea. There would be something to praise, not criticise, in that. But they cant be research powerhouses. Having said thatand this is criticalyou can find some colleges which are part of traditional universities and are still doing well. Colleges like Xaviers, institutes like IITs, IIMs and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and universities like JNU may not be world class, but are very well respected. Their numbers, though, are really small in the traditional scheme of things.

What needs to be done

What do you need to do? You need to reform the governance so that its not overly bureaucratised, remove politics, give universities more money and loosen upbut not get rid ofthe affiliating system. There was an effort to free some of the colleges a few years ago, when some of the top colleges were given autonomy and some even took it. So, if you do all those things, you can have some respectable institutions with reasonably high standards. Some are probably just in a wrong place, very poorly funded and dont have good facilities. However, universities like Delhi University and Mumbai University have a chance to become better.

Real not-for-profit private universities in India hold promise

In this era of mass higher education, the public sector cant and doesnt want to spend money to provide access. Hence, private higher education is the fastest growing part of higher education globally. Most of the global private sector is low quality, mass access, vocation focussed, sometimes not really education but more like training or skills education.

One of the things that have been eye-opening for me on this visit is that there are some parts of the private sector here which are pretty good and a few real not-for-profit private universities. Globallyin Japan and a couple of other countries like Brazil and the US, where half the high prestige universities are private research universitiesit has been done, so its not impossible. And India now, there are a few very rich individuals who are committed to education. For instance, the Azim Premji University is focussing on education, which is a really neglected field in this country.

Deep pockets, faculty focus and right governance can help new universities

If one were starting a new university in India and wanted it to become world class, one would need deep pockets and the ability to spend significant amounts of money on facilities and labs, especially in science. One would also need to spend on faculty

and give them good working conditions. In India, it may not be necessary to give them the same salaries as an American or Australian university may give. But they have to have salaries approaching international standards and probably better than local salaries in India.

By the way, in a study that I did on salary of faculty in 28 countries, India ranked quite well when compared by purchasing power parity. Indian academics may well be 6th from the top. The Chinese dont do so well, as they have bad salaries and so does Russia, which is at the bottom of our list.

Besides paying the faculty well, you also have to have a governance arrangement which is empowering, efficient and not overly bureaucratic. Unfortunately, traditional Indian universities have none of those things so I believe, they have no chance of being, by the normal criterion, world class institutions. The only Indian universities that are ranked anywhere in the world in some rankings are some of the IITs, but they are not full service universities and are small. They only offer engineering courses, though they are very good at it.

Incidentally, on this visit to India, I went to the new Shiv Nadar University. They seem to have a good resource base, a commitment to not-for-profit values and a long-term perspective. They seem to also have the right ideas about governance, salary structure for faculty, focus on research and spending the right amount of money on the campus, which they have just started to build. I wish them more power. I hope they are able to succeed. There are some very impressive people in this country, who are under-appreciated and underused. That needs to change.


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