The dangers of looking for a fast track to international excellence

The Universities for Research and Innovation Bill 2012, introduced in the Indian national parliament in May, aims to create high-quality research and innovation universities, or world-class universities.

These universities are to focus on research and development, to aspire to attain the pinnacle of knowledge in a particular area through innovation in design, and to produce research that will eliminate deprivation by bridging linkages between research institutions and industry.

The bill provides for the setting up of new universities by the union government or by private bodies – domestic or foreign – and for the classification of some existing institutions as research and innovation universities.

Viewed as a major component of the India Excellence Initiative, these universities are expected to boost the quality and standards of higher education in the country. It is also hoped that at least some of them will figure in the top 100 or 200 universities in the global rankings – currently there are no Indian institutions in the top 200.

With a high degree of autonomy guaranteed, it is hoped that many private and foreign ‘promoters’ will make huge investments and set up strong universities, and thereby contribute to the currently meagre base of research and development investment and help to build a knowledge society.

India spends very little on R&D in general and research in universities in particular. Total spending on R&D amounted to 0.9% of GDP in 2010, while in many advanced countries it ranges between 2.5% and 4.5%.

By the nomenclature, one would feel encouraged at the outset to note that at last some kind of priority is being given to research and innovation in India’s universities. In fact, all higher education and research institutions – rather than a few selected ‘elite’ institutions – are expected to be focusing on research and innovation.

A majority of the existing institutions pay only lip-service to research and innovation, however. The bill does not refer to them. There is much need and scope to strengthen existing central and state universities, in such a way that they become universities with high standards.

Perhaps not all, but a good number of universities have the potential to do so. They need (a) assured strong public funding, (b) a high degree of academic autonomy including freedom to hire quality faculty from within and outside the country, and (c) de-politicisation.

Unfortunately, the bill is not thinking of these nearly 600 existing universities. A large number of institutions, including many central universities – particularly new ones – are starved of qualified faculty and other critical inputs, including infrastructure and funds.

Holistic approach manifestly missing

An important feature of the bill is the conception of innovation universities as distinct universities, with no relation to other universities and institutions of higher education.

Even if all or some of these innovation universities became high-quality research institutions, they will remain isolated, with no impact at all on the rest of the higher education system. A holistic approach to higher education in India is manifestly missing.

Then there is the role of the private sector to consider. The government expects huge involvement from the private sector in setting up innovation universities, either in terms of establishing private universities on their own or through various modes of public-private partnership.

Going by past experience, one cannot expect India’s private sector to be interested in setting up research and innovation universities. Hundreds of engineering colleges and some universities were set up by the private sector, as they yield quick profits. Research and innovation universities may not yield such profits.

Of course, the bill provides for a very high degree of autonomy for innovation universities in all aspects, including levying of fees, the generation of resources from other sources and their utilisation. This might be quite an attractive provision for the private sector.

Given the resource constraints and government’s preference, it is likely that many of the new innovation universities will be private ones – domestic or foreign – and the freedom they are guaranteed will result in further growth of private education and a high degree of commercialisation.

But by its very nomenclature, ‘research and innovation universities’ cannot be expected to be money-generating, and on the other hand they can be expected to be high-level investment propositions, requiring huge investment and a long-term vision. They will be able to generate economic benefits to the individuals who set them up, and to society, only after a long period of investment.

If that is the case, and if one takes the nomenclature seriously, one can argue that it is only the government that can and should take responsibility for setting up such universities. Neither private nor foreign universities will have long-term vision, long-term interests or be willing to make huge investments and wait for a long ‘gestation period’.

Moreover, apart from the fact that they will be fully autonomous, there is no clear indication of how these universities will become world-class or universities of exceptional quality in terms of research and innovation.

The ‘promoter’, the chancellor or vice-chancellor and most of the members of the board of directors are not expected, according to the bill, to be intellectuals, researchers or academics of great standard. The board members are expected to be innovators and industry leaders. It is doubtful whether any grand research vision could be developed in such a set-up.

One of the most important features of the bill is complete autonomy or unbridled freedom, which may be very dangerous in our society. Universities – not only research and innovation universities, but also existing universities – do require autonomy.

But it needs to be autonomy with accountability.

Academic institutions require a high degree of academic autonomy, a fair amount of administrative autonomy and much less financial autonomy. The bill places research and innovation universities beyond the purview of any public body.

Even the proposed National Commission for Higher Education and Research will not have anything to do with these universities.

Given experience with India’s private and even public institutions, a reasonably strong mechanism for providing public control is necessary, so that these research and innovation universities are accountable to society and produce 'public goods' for India rather than 'global public goods'.

* Jandhyala BG Tilak is a professor at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration in New Delhi.