World-class Universities in India: Dream or Reality

Philip G. Altbach, author, researcher, professor at Boston College and one of the world’s most influential thinkers in higher education, once expressed, “India is a world-class country without world-class universities. It deserves some world-class institutions, as it is a very large and growing economy. There are a lot of smart people in India but they go away to other countries, as they do not find top-level institutions here.”

The truth is that though India is at a sophisticated level intellectually, at present it has virtually no representation in international rankings of educational institutions.

It seems the government of India has finally woken up to the need to create a qualitative improvement in the standards of higher education in the country. An initiative to promote 20 universities to become world-class teaching and research institutions was announced in India’s last budget, presented by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.

In his speech, Jaitley said, “It is our commitment to empower higher educational institutions to help them become world-class teaching and research institutions. An enabling regulatory architecture would be provided for 10 public and 10 private institutions,” adding a detailed scheme and a new higher education funding agency would be formulated to convert them into world class institutions.

Altbach commented that while the announcement on creating world-class institutions in India was “encouraging”, there have been “similar goals before” and “little has come of them”.

Professor Altbach added, “A combination of resources, innovative thinking, careful planning and freedom from the overweening control of government are required. This is a tall order, and so far India has proved incapable of success.”

So how do we go about becoming capable of success and actually converting this dream into reality? What after all is a ‘world-class university’? And how do we go about creating one or more?

World Class University recently has become such a catch phrase. It seems that universities across the globe aspire to become world-class. Unfortunately, only few of those universities really understand what a world-class university is and what the criteria are to attain that standard. Like Altbach observed, “everyone wants one, no one knows what it is, and no one knows how to get one.”

Perhaps the most recognized work on world-class universities is the one that Dr. Jamil Samli of the World Bank published in 2009. According to Dr. Samli, a world-class university is one that produces highly sought after graduates; leading-edge research; dynamic knowledge and technology transfer.

Dr. Samli says that these results are produced because of a high concentration of talent, in faculty, students, researchers; good governance, leadership, strategic vision, innovation, flexibility and autonomy; abundant resources to offer a rich learning environment and to conduct advanced research, with resources coming from the public budget, public funding, and research grants.

Transforming a university into a world-class institution is quite a challenge. Becoming a world-class institution cannot be achieved by self-declaration. International recognition has to be conferred. Till now, this was based mostly on reputation. For instance, Ivy League universities, such as Harvard, Yale, or Columbia in the U.S., the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the U.K.; and the University of Tokyo have always been counted among the best of universities, though there have been no substantial measures to support this status.

Now, however, certain criteria of measurable results such as training of graduates, research output, and technology transfer etc are used to confer recognition. To achieve international accreditation, certain core criteria must be met. According to the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), a research institute engaged in the field of higher education must have:

Quality Research: Indicators of quality research such as productivity in research based on the number of national and international journals, citations used by other academics in research, and awards received by the universities

Graduates work: Graduate employment indicator such as academic strength; the ability of graduates to work effectively in a multicultural team, to manage employees and projects. This indicator is seen from a survey of employers, the employment rate of graduates,etc.

Quality of Teaching: local teaching quality assessment, ratio of teachers to students, collation of feedback students, and students nationwide survey on the college.

Infrastructure related to labs and research facilities which must be of the best standards.

All in all, a world-class university certainly cannot be built in a day. An environment that fosters favourable policies, direct public initiative and support, setting up advanced research facilities and capacities are required to establish one.

International experience shows that the best way to do this is for the government to pay more attention to this aspect, to select a number of universities and upgrade them. Another way could be for the government to encourage a number of universities to merge into one or it could start right from scratch and build new world-class universities.

This is what the government plans to do. The government will identify 10 government and 10 private universities and help them achieve “world-class standards”. These universities must have :

* A corpus of at least Rs 1,000 crore
* A place in the top 500 in any renowned ranking system
* Accreditation by a reputed international agency
* Faculty-student ratio not less than 1:10 over 3 years of establishment
* Excellent laboratory facilities and cutting edge research
* A good mix of domestic and foreign students
* A good proportion of foreign or foreign qualified faculty
* Teaching and research collaborations with reputed international universities
* At least two publications in each discipline in a reputed peer-reviewed journal every year

How will the universities be chosen?

Institutions must submit a detailed 15-year plan of how they would meet requirements of world-class universities. A committee of experts set up by the UGC will evaluate the plans and pick the universities for upgradation. Applicants in the government category should figure in the top 25 of the National Institution Ranking Framework.

How will the government help?

The institutions will have the freedom to :

* Charge fees from foreign students without restriction, and determine fee for domestic students, and provide adequate scholarships for deserving students.
* Offer courses and degrees in new areas without consulting regulatory institutions.
* Initiate academic collaborations with foreign educational institutions without need for government approvals.
* Hire foreign faculty with relaxed salary restrictions.
* Hire industry experts even if they don’t have requisite academic qualification.
* Spend resources with full financial autonomy.
* Government world-class universities will get additional assistance of Rs 500 crore over 5 years.

Certain issues need to be ironed out. Will allowing private players to set up entirely new institutions as world-class universities be used as an attempt to give big private interests easy passage into the education sector? And what about whether foreign education providers can use this route to enter India and set up campuses here? UGC would need to change its rules regarding universities to allow for greater autonomy to these institutions.

There are approximately 17,000 universities in the world, amongst which only the top 100–200 can be described as world class, whereas perhaps only the top 25 could be described as being truly world leading. Can we aspire to become members of that elite group – one question and the whole nation waiting for the answer.

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