Does India have only three good colleges?

9 May

It is the season when Phil Baty and his Times Higher Education Rankings unleash a flurry of results, that invariably lead to a series of Op-Eds and articles that bemoan the terrible state of higher education in India.

I honour that tradition with this piece.

Firstly, it is disappointing to see the celebration surrounding the 3 IITs that have made it to the top 100 in the Asian list. The Asian list, not the global list. Just 3 of the IITs, which form the cream of educational institutions of the country. Serving a sixth of humanity. Serving a nation that claims to have soft power based on its graduates and engineers who turn the gears of the world’s businesses. Sorry, not good enough.

While these IITs did qualify to be ranked along with the world’s best universities, it is also true that they are not universities at all. Nor are they deemed universities. They are focused centres of excellence that do not have the drag of managing a range of departments as a typical university would. With such focus, they have an edge over other institutions and should indeed have performed better in the global rankings.

The celebration over the mention of these IITs also seems to let the other Universities off the hook. Since India is represented in the rankings, the others can carry on oblivious, and sooner or later into oblivion. Indian Higher Education institutions, especially the Universities are in dire crisis and there is very little being done to reform them. Any conversation about higher education reform still revolves around structures, regulations and procedures. This, being led by the supply side rather than a clear drive to lead for the future via granular understanding of the demand is the fatal flaw in reform design. If there is any reform designed.

Our Universities have serious governance issues. And a leadership crisis. For years faculty have been speaking of the politicisation of key positions in Universities. And it is true that not only in India, but globally, institutional excellence in education has been delivered by autonomous public institutions. Each of these have been led by strong leaders in their transformational years and it is these leaders that have created the ethos, personality and standards within these organisations. Present institution design does allow for strong political influences in leader selection which has corroded the institution of the educational leader.

It is not just politics but also a design issue that needs attention. Currently all three functions – operations, strategy and governance are vested in the single seat of the Vice Chancellor. While in theory these are delegated, with the Vice Chancellor holding over arching responsibility, in practice the VC does have to deal with the nitty gritty of each of these strands. Good governance demands a separation of these functions.. a compliance officer cannot be the same as the operations officer. Conflicts of interest should be managed by counter balancing roles and people (assuming they are honest) for good decisions to be made. The design of organisations and procedures in higher education needs serious reform, and needs to be built around serving their core client – the students. Universities are not built for bureaucracy, they are built to create and disseminate knowledge.

Any changes or reforms in the University system need to be well thought through before they are implemented -as one would expect from a body of intellectuals who teach students rigorous thinking within their subject area. Yet, one of the largest changes we have seen recently is the move to a four year semester based system in Delhi University. The professors, who deal with the details have gone as far as to support an open petition against this move. Senior professors rightly point out that three to four months is inadequate to move over to a new course design and seek more time to question the need for this change. While the four year degree is supposed to match the duration of the degree in the West, there has been little work done on what exactly the extra year is supposed to contribute to the development of the student. It is also interesting that this change is proposed as the conversation in the West has started to move towards the possibility of three year degrees due to cost pressures. What is worse about the proposed four year degree is that the intent of creating a liberal arts kind of free flowing first year is not borne out in practice – students actually have very little choice or flexibility in their choices of minor subjects. The synergies that were expected to be gained from multidisciplinarity cannot be harvested as the idea does not map to operational design.

Stakeholders question the need for this change – who will it really serve? Will it make for better quality education? Or do we need other models to make Indian Higher education hold its own in the world. Would more private participation, international collaboration help? Or should there be more autonomy and accountability and less policing? Should there be more and better peer learning such as via the Higher Education Forum (disclaimer, I am a member and a node for the Delhi chapter) that self organises faculty development programs. Is this a central responsibility, a federated one or a local one?

The issue really is not about international rankings, which perform a limited (though important role) in understanding and benchmarking for quality. The Times rankings put a high weightage on international connections within higher education, and this has not been a priority for Indian Higher Education so far. Since the domestic demand for higher education seats, especially at the better institutions, is so high – there is little reason to seek students from other countries in large numbers. Research collaborations are few and far between since most Universities are de facto more teaching institutions than research hubs – and this is a hole that must be plugged. At the same time, the rankings do point to the gaps in achievement. This is borne out by anecdotal evidence and industry reports that state that most graduates are barely functionally literate and almost unemployable. Clearly the universities are failing in the twin core functions of creating employable youth, and that of creating bodies of knowledge via research that is acknowledged and useful around the world.

As Indian universities continue to fail their students, they will see more of the creamy layer go away to different countries for higher education. Technology, including variations of the popular MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) will reduce the centrality of the mediocre universities or indifferent professors, reducing them to examination and certification centres. To stem the rot, to become relevant and respected again, Indian Higher Education will need to take a good hard look at itself and design its reinvention. In this re-invention they will be well advised to work on the principles of the centrality of the learner and on the inexorable necessity of good governance.

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This was published at: on April 25, 2013

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