For a society that prides itself on the value it places on education, India’s higher education institutions have much catching up to do. There is not a single Indian university ranked in the top 250 of the Times 2018 ranking of the world’s top universities. Only two universities have been ranked in the top 500.
Even beyond rankings, there are tell-tale signs. A recent report suggests that over 80 per cent of Indian engineering graduates are unemployable. Recent large donations by Indian companies (for instance, by the Tatas) have been to foreign universities. It is hard to point to commercial products or solutions spun off Indian academic research.
What ails the Indian university? First, public investment in education (as a fraction of GDP, for example) is low by world standards (4 per cent vs 4.9 per cent). This leads to relatively poor infrastructure, insufficient educational and laboratory resources, and poor hiring and retention. Second, the metrics for hiring and assessment are focused on numbers, instead of quality and impact.
Wrong metrics create wrong incentives. Present incentives do not promote world class education or research. Third, political interference is rampant. Unnecessary political interference can impact focus and morale. Fourth, universities are largely disconnected from the problems faced by industry or society. Lack of industry or social relevance can adversely affect resources, placement, and recruitment.
Some argue that in a country where most people are still poor, governmental resources are best spent not on universities, but elsewhere. Another popular argument is that it is much more important to educate more than to provide world-class higher education.
These arguments fail to recognize the importance of high quality higher education. In most developed countries, the government, the industry, and the universities work closely together to solve problems with industry and society. Lack of world class universities leads to missed opportunities for industry, economy, and society.
Second, today’s flat-world knowledge economy requires sophisticated skills to participate, especially for high paying jobs. A mediocre higher education may provide a degree, but may render the graduate unemployable, as is being widely noticed in the engineering sector today.
Third, industry is much more likely to invest in higher education if they derive value in terms of their workforce or technology needs. Industry support for high quality universities will free up governmental resources to be used for other areas of need.
China serves as a good role model for improving the quality of higher education and academic research. The quality of Chinese higher education was marginally worse than India in the early 2000s. However, China’s investments into higher education and academic research in last two decades has led to significant improvements in quality.
Seven Chinese universities are now ranked within top 200 in the world university rankings. Academic research has led to several commercial ventures, especially in semiconductors, artificial intelligence, and biosciences. Top research conferences routinely feature papers from China.
What has China done differently? First, the extent of monetary investment by China into higher education is at a different scale. China’s public research funding is eight times higher than India. Second, there is a strong focus on internationalisation of faculty, curriculum, instruction, and students.
This is reflected in considerable governmental support for attracting international scientists, researchers, and students, especially of Chinese origin, funds for supporting short-term and long-term visits for Chinese students and faculty, and joint partnerships and degrees with renowned international universities. China also has a much stronger and egalitarian human capital base due to strong primary and secondary education systems and better public health. This leads to better higher education outcomes.
To be competitive, India must increase public investment into higher education. This applies even to state governments – a large fraction of students gets their college and higher degree from state and private institutions.
These institutions are, in general, worse funded than central institutions and often have greater dearth of qualified faculty. India must also make stronger commitment to internationalising its higher education. Continued exposure to international standards will enhance quality. Special emphasis must be placed on vocational institutions – private partnership will lower burden and enhance relevance.
A separate research assessment body should be set up. The body will regulate metrics to be used for recruitment and appraisals. Stronger intellectual property protection must be enforced. This will encourage innovation and partnerships with industry.
Many universities support a large number of satellite colleges that often affect focus and efficiency of the university. Consolidation should be considered in such cases. Private institutions must be allowed to bid for public funding. Healthy competition will help all institutions. Academic administrators should be trained to set up right incentives and processes.
Continual disregard of higher education since independence has led to our best universities not being good enough. It is time to recognize the higher education crisis we are facing, and prepare for a long slog ahead.
The writer is Associate Professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Illinois.