No Indian university or institute has come in the top 100 of world university rankings. The Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, comes highest at 179 in the global 2018 QS Top Universities rankings. So, it’s obvious that the regulatory bodies, the University Grants Commission and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), have failed to spawn excellence. Instead, bureaucratic rigidity has nurtured mediocrity. So, how does one change this situation? The earlier UPA government chose to set up new IITs and IIMs, to take advantage of their brand value. The present NDA government passed the IIM Actin 2017, ostensibly to give autonomy to IIMs.
Another idea was to select ‘institutions of eminence’ (IoE) and to provide them similar autonomy, and fund the public institutes among them. Any institution that aspired for the IoE tag had to pay a processing fee of Rs 1 crore, of which Rs 75 lakh would be returned if rejected. In public perception, the IITs and IIMs are reputed institutes, but the latter missed out getting an IoE tag probably for not being multidisciplinary. This could have been avoided if the eligibility criteria had been clearly mentioned.
There were other steps in the selection, such as evaluating each candidate’s programme of action (PoA). The proposed Jio University came under the ‘greenfield’ category. Whether excellence or potential excellence, can be judged by promises alone is a moot point. A good PowerPoint presentation will not make up for excellence. There have also been questions about the selection committee members, as to how they are best suited to evaluate academic excellence. N Gopalaswami was chief election commissioner (CEC) with no claim to educational excellence.
He was appointed chancellor of Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeetha, Tirupati, in 2015. Another committee member Pritam Singh was a former director, IIM-Lucknow, even though the IIMs, de facto, were excluded for consideration. Which makes one come to the question: why is it that the five existing institutions that have been given the IoE tag —IIT-Bombay, IIT-Delhi, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) Pilani, and Manipal Academy of Higher Education — do not come out anywhere near the top 100 in global rankings? This is because, except for IISc, their reputation has been created by their students and not by their faculty, whereas elsewhere in the world, faculty contribution to reputation is a significant and primary factor.
In IITs and IIMs, there would be hardly 10 percent of faculty who would have global recognition and, therefore, mobility. The new IIMs and IITs face severe faculty constraints. Unlike in the US, where better students join Ph.D. programmes, in India, the BTechs of IITs and MBAs of IIMs don’t join doctoral programmes in the country. The programme is usually peopled by the second-tier students from universities. So, how to manufacture ‘excellent’ institutions? There are two models of excellence: the US and Singapore-Hong Kong-China models. In the US, mainly private universities have achieved excellence, supported by liberal funding by businessmen wanting to give back to society. In India, they build temples.
Of late, some private institutes and universities are coming up in a much smaller scale. In private universities, autonomy and accountability are two sides of the same coin. They are able to pursue the search for excellence through a ruthless process of weeding out. In Indian public sector institutions like IITs and IIMs, such ruthlessness is not possible. The Indian private sector has taken some halting steps of late, but it is yet to mature. However, the Singapore-Hong Kong-China model gives an important counter-example to our previous hypothesis of incompatibility of excellent performance and public ownership. There, the government pours in tonnes of money in universities, gives the dean complete autonomy to recruit faculty at global salaries — coupled with Asian cost of living — on a no-questions-asked basis, but with a clear accountability for results in a reasonable period.
The experiment has produced moderate success. This is because these places, while able to fund liberally, can’t yet provide the ecosystem, and the network for faculty to be continuously productive. The accomplished ‘ethnic’ faculty, which comes from reputed institutions, return after a few years of ‘homestay’, mindful of the need for academic survival. Building excellence is not an easy process, even if you can pay for it. Given such odds, India seems to hold a simplistic idea about the path to excellence — that excellence can be allotted like a license. So, easy options like name-changing, duplication, giving notional autonomy, etc, will not do. Like Parvati undertaking penance to marry Lord Shiva, there is no shortcut to eminence.