Can India learn from China in creating world-class universities?

India can learn much from countries such as China, Japan and the United States in order to create and run world-class universities, according to a panel of experts at a higher education conference held in New Delhi last week.

A global outlook, strong university administration and catering to the diverse needs of youth were highlighted as key areas for Indian universities aiming to achieve excellence, at “One Globe 2013: Uniting knowledge communities”, a conference focusing on global higher education in South Asia.

Defining needs

For any university to be world class, it must first define and prioritise needs clearly and then concentrate on those needs, said Robin Lewis, professor and director of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, and Moscow professor in the school of social development and public policy at Beijing Normal University.

India had some tough choices to make, Lewis said. “You can build upon or improve existing institutions. This enables you to have a foundation, strong cultural roots, and you can use existing resources for future programmes. It frees you from having to invent everything anew,” said Lewis.

“On the other side, a new university enables you to focus on innovation, to bring a freshness; you don’t have to carry with you structural institutional values from the past,” he said.

“Secondly, you can choose to build a comprehensive university, which is a long-term programme and will be a costly affair. Or you can create centres of excellence based on your strengths and quickly respond to local and national needs,” he said.

Defining a university’s purpose would also mean identifying the needs of India’s youth, said Jerry M Hultin, president of the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, or NYU-Poly.
“A global university has to be layered. India does not only need professors and PhD scholars. It needs managers, technicians and entrepreneurs.

“Other than research degrees, a university can look at creating two-year associate degree programmes that equip students with skills to find a job and make a living. The best students or those interested can go on to do a PhD,” said Hultin.

International collaborations

The world-class university was inherently global, said experts at the conference.

Sharing his experiences in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, where New York University has opened campuses, Hultin said China had invited global players into the country to help build a knowledge economy.

“They want a bigger role in the world and they also want more brains. Secondly, they want international players to set standards that will be seen as examples by their own educators,” said Hultin, speaking to University World News on the sidelines of the conference.

At NYU-Poly, Abu Dhabi, the dean of engineering convenes a quarterly meeting of all engineering deans across universities and institutions. “This is a very powerful national and global network,” said Hultin.

Stating that a campus in India was very much on NYU-Poly’s radar, Hultin said the laws had to be clear before his or any other university could enter India, referring to the deadlock over the Foreign Educational (Regulation of Entry and Operations) Bill 2010.

The bill, originally tabled in parliament in May 2010, has stalled in its passage through the legislature, with several political parties opposed to some of the provisions under which foreign universities would be allowed to operate in India.

The parliamentary standing committee concerned has made several recommendations for revising the draft bill, which are currently being considered by the government.

Notably, India announced new rules in 2012 that would allow only the top 500 globally ranked institutions to partner with leading Indian universities.

The regulation has opened the door for universities and autonomous colleges in India to offer joint degree programmes in humanities and basic sciences not falling under technical education with foreign partners.

However, it is not clear whether Indian universities will be willing to critically examine their curriculum, research goals and governance structures through international collaborations.

Robin Lewis emphasised that China had actively reached out to foreign partners and was open to exchange and collaborations.

“China is looking seriously into the lack of critical thinking and innovation in its education system and forging international partnerships to overcome this disadvantage. India has to emulate this,” Lewis said.

University governance

Autonomy in governance was an essential aspect of a world-class university, and political interference and high dependency on government funds that were tied to numerous clauses was proving to be a handicap for many Indian institutions, said Shailendra Mehta, visiting professor of business policy at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmadabad.

Mehta’s research and his paper “Why is Harvard #1? Governance and the dominance of US universities" analyse the reasons behind American universities’ consistent topping of university rankings.

He concludes that a higher percentage of alumni on the board of a university are associated with a higher ranking, increased selectivity and a larger endowment.

According to Mehta’s analysis, 19 of the top 20 universities in US News and World Report’s much-watched rankings are controlled by alumni (defined as 50% or more representation on the board of trustees). They are also non-profit.

The only exception, the California Institute of Technology, has a board with 40% alumni representation. Of the top five, three (Harvard, Yale and Columbia) are managed entirely by alumni, and two (Princeton and Stanford) are under 90% alumni control. Alumni run the show even at public institutions such as Purdue (90%) and Michigan (63%).

On average, alumni make up 63% of the boards of the top 100 US universities, public and private alike.

Mehta said alumni-controlled American universities have autonomy and are fiercely competitive. “Institutions that compete with each other for budget, faculty, infrastructure and students will always do better. This will also affect the governance of universities and how they are run,” he said.

Noting that China used to have a centralised governance system, Beijing Normal University's Lewis said the country had started providing more autonomy to its higher education institutions.

“The Chinese government has been more effective in supporting higher education. Government subsidies today come with no strings attached. There is a willingness to send people for training and a greater effort to bring them back.

“But in terms of ecosystems, India has some natural advantages that it should make use of.”