Friday, February 20, 2009


Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently announced a number of major projects in science and technology education and research: to be set up are five Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research, twenty IIITs, and ten NITs. Six new IITs have started functioning and two more are to be set up. Institute for Space Technology has already been set up. The second campus of TIEFR is coming up in Hyderabad. He also talked about his government’s plans to set up thirty new Central Universities as part of institution building programme during the 11th plan period. All these might sound good to many.

He had earlier proposed the setting up of world-class universities in India. Going by newspaper reports, he didn’t give many details about the proposed universities; for example, are non-Indians going to be on the faculty? Would a member of the faculty get a permanent position after a year’s probation at the university?, etc. In any case, this proposal reportedly didn’t get support from UGC, Central Higher Education Review Committee, and Deputy Chairperson of the Planning Commission, among others. As reported in Deccan Herald (November 26, 2008), UGC is unsympathetic to it because it would set up a hierarchy among universities. This appears surprising – by assigning grade to universities and colleges, isn’t National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) already doing it? As for the views of the university academics, if at all they had deliberated on this proposal of the Prime Minister, there is no mention of these - in the national media at least.

In recent years no generally held credible ranking system has shown that there are world-class universities in India. However, quite a few university teachers in our country express skepticism about the objectivity of these rankings, but these critics haven’t developed a more reasonable and more acceptable ranking system that would show that our universities really rank much higher than what the existing ranking systems assign to them. The Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Ahluwalia is right that it would take about 15 or 20 years for a newly set-up university to acquire the world-class status, assuming of course the usual things: high quality students and faculty, healthy academic environment, commitment to excellence in research and teaching, etc.

Surely no major central university in India was set up with the aim of being among the best in the country alone. But the best of them can be said to have achieved not more than that. Dr. Singh’s proposal amounts to his saying that none of them inspires general confidence that it can grow into a world-class university if provided with additional resources. So if India must have a world-class university, then such a one must be set up; no “upgrading” of an existing university would serve the purpose.

Setting up of special institutions almost always means diverting of resources to these, as a result of which the existing institutions, divested of resources would suffer. Circumspection is needed even if the allocation to the existing institutions remains unaffected. Helping them to modernize and improve standards would require additional financial support for them. It may not be in the best interests of higher education in our country if there are one or two great universities, but dozens and dozens of them failing to offer quality education.

Some years ago at least a couple of our universities were among the top hundred universities in the world. One wonders whether ours have declined or whether others have progressed. Success stories of the relevant universities in our neighbourhood at least - Japan, China, and South Korea – and stories of our own failure together can help us understand what steps we need to take to raise the standard of teaching and research in our universities. Mere setting up of new universities with global aspirations may not take us very far.