Context: In the recent subject-wise ranking of world universities by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), Indian institutions improved with 26 departments or schools placed in the top 100 of their respective disciplines. 

More about the news:

  • Science, technology and business studies were the fields in which our universities showed their mettle. 
  • However, not even a single Indian university features in the QS ranking of the world’s top 150 in overall parameters. 
  • The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) of Bombay and Delhi are at the 152nd and 182nd places in the overall rankings, while IISc Bangalore appears at the 184th position. 

QS’s top 10 in overall terms include:

Five American universities (MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Caltech and Chicago), four British universities (Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and Imperial College) and one Swiss university (ETH Zurich). 

What led to the success of Foreign Universities?

  • Enjoys significant autonomy: One common factor behind the success of the topmost universities is the freedom with which they operate
  • Major centres of innovation: 
    • They have been major centres of innovation in teaching and research thanks to independence from bureaucratic or corporate meddling and political intervention by parties of the day. 
    • They could remain centres of extraordinary excellence in a sustained way by according primacy to matters of the mind, i.e. intellectual ideas and solutions to problems, and avoiding becoming hostage to dogmatic thought.
  • Pluralistic centres: Professors and students in these top performing universities are free to choose whatever opinion they prefer. No one is penalised for holding a pro- or anti- view on social, economic, political, cultural or scientific matters.
  • Excellent at attracting and retaining talent: The top universities hire professors very selectively, based on outstanding scholarly abilities. They reject a large number of candidates for admission as students, and admit only the brightest and the most meritorious. 
  • Incentivise publication and citation of research in a rigorous way. 
    • For example, if an Assistant Professor does not produce brilliant publications in the most reputed journals of her field, she may lose her job and not get tenured as an Associate Professor. By doing so, these universities promote a meritocratic culture as a habit.
  • Inculcate critical thinking, debating and writing abilities in their students. They encourage students to look at issues through interdisciplinary lenses and to challenge their own professors. 
  • Grading system: They award grades to students who are argumentative and who question conventional wisdom in the classroom and in assignments. 
  • Interactive pedagogy produces champion graduates who have a reputation for cutting-edge skills and knowledge in the job market compared to peers from second or third-tier universities.
  • Involving their own alumni: In governance and reforms. 
    • Super-smart financial managers: Many of them, especially the U.S. universities, have sophisticated alumni offices through which they raise funding, which can exceed the revenue from student tuition fees. 
    • For example, By 2019, the total endowment of Harvard was worth $40 billion, which is made up of over 13,000 individual funds. Harvard invests this money in a variety of financial instruments and generates phenomenal income from it.

The China example:

  • A muscular push from the government of China with massive state funding has propelled Chinese universities into the top tiers in barely two decades. 
  • In the QS world rankings on overall basis, Tsinghua University is ranked number 16, Peking University is at 22, Fudan University is at 40, and Zhejiang University is at 54..

Lessons to be learnt by India:

  1. Avoiding politicisation, ideological rigidity and nepotism, and freeing our universities from excessive interference and over-regulation, are prerequisites for success. 
  2. Drive to excel: Most importantly, our universities must have the drive to excel and compete with Chinese or Western universities. Insularity and self-congratulatory frog-in-the-well attitudes have held us back for long.
  3. Adequate training to students: Ingrained mediocrity and laid-back culture which result in inadequate training of students in theories and methodologies have to be overcome. 
  4. A nationalistic passion for India to be recognised as a top educational hub must underpin the strategies and activities of our universities.
  5. Enlightened private philanthropy and borrowing best practices: In India, the government is cash-strapped and lacks the kind of resources which the Chinese state deployed to pump-prime Chinese universities. 
    1. Hence India’s best viable path to world class universities are in the form of enlightened private philanthropy and borrowing best practices from established iconic universities.

Initiative in the right direction:

  • Institutes of Eminence (IOEs): The government’s decision to identify 20 Institutes of Eminence (IOEs) which will get maximum autonomy from bureaucracy in order to climb up the world rankings is a step in the right direction. 
    • The selected IOEs must innovate with new degree programmes, expanded variety of faculty members and digital learning platforms.
  • Education Quality Upgradation and Inclusion Programme (EQUIP):
    • A five-year vision plan to improve the quality and accessibility of higher education over the next five years (2019-2024).
    • It aims to double the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in higher education and resolve the geographically and socially skewed access to higher education institutions in India.
    • To bring at least 50 Indian institutions among the top-1000 global universities.
  • Revitalising Infrastructure and Systems in Education (RISE) by 2022:
    • It aims to qualitatively upgrade the research and academic infrastructure in India to global best standards by 2022. This will help in making India  an education hub.
    • To allow access of HEFA funding to institutions like Central Universities, AIIMS, IISERs and newly created Institutes of National Importance, without creating any additional burden to the students.
    • Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) has been tasked to mobilize Rs. 1,00,000 crores for this initiative.

India has miles to go in higher education. Still, with long-term vision and selfless leadership, Indian universities can eventually make it. To be among the best in the world, Indian universities must be freed from excessive interference and politicisation.

Source: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/temples-of-critical-thinking-and-debate/article31063048.ece