INDIA: Effort to join 21st Century higher education

India's government will create 12 new central universities, adding to the 18 that currently exist. This is a mammoth undertaking and the equivalent of US$73 million has been allocated from the central government budget to it. Earlier this year India announced it would create 30 'world class' universities, eight new Indian institutes of technology and seven Indian institutes of management in the coming five years. On the recommendation of the National Knowledge Commission, the central government is planning massive investment to upgrade and expand higher education. Other plans include enhancing the salaries of college and university academics - boosting salaries by as much as 70%.

This prospect represents welcome news since India currently lacks world class universities according to the international rankings, and Indian academics, when compared internationally, are rather poorly paid. Students also suffer an immense shortage of places in India's top academic institutions and throughout the higher education system. India today educates only half as many young people from the university age group as China and ranks well behind most Latin American and other middle income countries.

India exhibits a special problem at the top of its higher education hierarchy. With the notable exceptions of the institutes of technology and institutes of management, and a small number of outstanding non-university research and training institutions - such as the All India Institute of Medical Sciences - top-notch schools are rare. Indeed, none of India's 348 universities is ranked in the top 100 in the world. Generally, when India has wanted to innovate in the higher education sector, it has side-stepped the universities and has started entirely new institutions such as the institutes of technology.

However, if India invests large amounts of money and human capital into academic improvement and expansion without undertaking strategies to ensure that the investment will yield results, resources will be wasted and failure will be assured. Despite a discussion of organising some of the new universities based on the American model, so far neither the ideas nor the funding seems adequate. Yet, a newspaper reported that one official said: "The view was that there should be no hierarchy or disparity in standards amongst universities, and the reforms and changes suggested for world class universities should be applied to all universities." This attitude shows a complete misunderstanding that the American system institutes significant hierarchy among the public universities.

Just pumping money and resources into a fundamentally broken university system is a mistake. Establishing new universities, especially those intended to be innovative, requires careful planning and an understanding of the weaknesses of the current system. Let us outline some of the problems that need fixing before resources are given.

Bureaucracy without accountability

India is world famous for sclerotic bureaucracy, and higher education fits into that mold. Few decisions can be made without receiving permission from an authority above, and the wheels of decision-making grind slowly. Fear of corruption or of a loss of control entrenches bureaucracy. Teachers and academic leaders at colleges and universities have little incentive to innovate higher education - indeed quite the opposite. It is completely impossible to build world class universities in this bureaucratic context. If the new institutions must tolerate responsibilities to both the central government and the states in which they are located, the bureaucratic burden will be completely overwhelming.


Great universities need to be located on friendly soil. In general, the best universities worldwide are in or near major urban centres or in places with intellectual traditions and strength. While it is entirely appropriate to have a good university in each of India's states, the idea of a truly world class university (an institution that can compete with the best universities in the world) in cities like Guwahati or Bhubaneshwar is simply unrealistic. It would be extraordinarily difficult to attract top professors or even the best students, and the 'soft' infrastructures,such as most cultural amenities, are missing. High-tech industry is also absent in these locations and world be difficult to lure. No amount of money will guarantee the establishment of a world class university in such a place.

The academic profession

Indian academics deserve higher salaries, and the current move to dramatically improve remuneration is a positive step. It would be a serious mistake to simply give more money to the professoriate without at the same time demanding significant reforms in the structure and practices of the profession. Indian academics are rewarded for longevity, rather than productivity, and for conformity rather than innovation. The most productive academics cannot be rewarded for their work, and it is almost impossible to pay 'market rates' to keep the best and the brightest in the universities. World class universities require a salary structure that rewards productivity.

Academic culture and governance

Indian universities are enmeshed in a culture of mediocrity, with little competition either among institutions or academics. Universities are subject to the whims of politicians and are unable to plan for their own futures. Academics are seldom involved in the leadership and management of universities. Bureaucracy governs everything and holds down innovation.

Without essential and deep structural change in how universities are governed and in the culture of institutions, there is little possibility for improvement. An additional challenge is that some of the world class universities are to be created by improving existing state universities. This will be extraordinarily difficult, since these institutions are, with very few exceptions, mired in mediocrity and bureaucracy, and hardly amenable to change and improvement, even with the carrot of additional resources.

An element of corruption exists at many levels of the higher education system, from favouritism in admissions, appointment to faculty positions, exam cheating, questionable coaching arrangements, and many others. Damaging at all levels, corruption destroys a research culture and makes a world class university impossible.

Meritocracy at all levels

World class universities are deeply meritocratic institutions. They hire the best professors, admit the most intelligent students, reward the brightest academics, and make all decisions on the basis of quality. They reject - and punish - plagiarism, favouritism in appointments, or corruption of any kind.

Much of Indian academe, unfortunately, does not reflect these values. Some of the problem is structural. The practice of admitting students and hiring professors on the basis of rigid quotas set for particular population groups - up to 49% - however well intentioned or justified, virtually precludes meritocracy. Deeply ingrained in Indian society and politics, the reservations system may well be justified - but to have successful world class universities, meritocracy must be the primary motivating principle.

The role of research

World class universities are research-intensive. All highly ranked universities in the world exhibit this characteristic. India faces several problems in developing a research culture.

It is fair to say that no Indian university today is, as an institution, research-intensive. India's universities can claim a small number of departments that have a high level of research - and many highly accomplished professors work in the system. And some institutions, such as institutes of technology and some non-university agencies like the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, produce impressive research and are respected internationally. The creation of a research-intensive university is mandatory to achieve world class status.


Rs 3,280 crores for the 12 new central universities, plus the other impressive amounts announced for related projects, sounds like a lot of money. In fact, it is very inadequate. Creating a world class research university that can play in the best international leagues is an expensive undertaking - to establish and then to sustain. As an example, one large research-intensive new Chinese university cost around US$700 million to build and has a total annual budget of close to US$400 million.


The challenges facing the creation of world class universities are daunting. Indeed, if India is to succeed as a great technological power with a knowledge-based economy, world class universities are required. The first step, however, is to examine the problems and create realistic solutions. Spending large sums in a scattershot manner will not work. Nor will copying the American academic model succeed.
To read the full report, click here: International Higher Education

* Professor Philip G Altbach is Monan professor of higher education and Director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, US. Professor N Jayaram is professor and dean, School of Social Sciences, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India.

* The title of their article in International Higher Education is "India's Effort to Join 21st Century Higher Education".

Professor M A Pai comments:
Ambitious plans have to be matched by qualified faculty which is in short supply for existing colleges. Scalability, Accountability and Sustainability(SAS) must be the mantra. Scalabilty needs increasing student to faculty ratio, accountability means producing more PhDs from existing places, sustainability is obvious. See www.indusscitech articles channel.


Ashish comments:
Great article. I live in US, and know teachers are well paid, including, professors, per That is the way to grow the future. Thanks.

This article covers everything which needed to know the shorcommings of our higher education system. But until we suggest the means of fairness in selection process of professors, it is incomplete. What I observed is in most of the universities the candidates are preselected and the selection process a become a drama, humiliating to the deserving candidates.

Dr Anand Kafaltiya

The view expressed on the geographical position of global universities in places like Bhubaneswar and Guwahati is nothing more than a sweeping remark rather than a clear understanding of the subject. Bhubaneswar and Orissa in general is one of the fastest growing knowledge hubs in India's eastern zones and the Oriya people are known to have a deep intellectual bent of mind. Rather than concentrating eternally on a few overcrowded hubs of knowledge - Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore - with further unjustified diversion of funds, it is prudent to develop other regions which show promise for the future.

To prevent large scale immigration to these overcrowded centers of imbalance this approach is a must. Such sweeping assumptions on the suitability of a region without a sound understanding of the demographics of the subject of ridicule should be avoided, not just to avoid the social unrest vis a vis the Marathi v. Non-Marathi issue, but towards a equitable development of the urban landscape in India. International ratings are immaterial against the intellectual capital generated across the length and breadth of the country while tackling the issue of migration at the same time.

Jatindra Singh Deo