STEM focus to drive ‘world-class’ universities scheme

India’s plan to develop 20 world-class universities will favour institutions strong in science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM subjects, experts said last week as the human resource development ministry sent its proposals for the new Institutions of Eminence scheme to the cabinet for approval.

According to the ministry’s draft proposals which could be approved by the cabinet as early as the end of May, the selected institutions – 10 of them private – will have to achieve a place in the top 500 of “any of the global rankings” within 10 years of being declared an Institution of Eminence, and eventually reach the top 100.

The government will monitor the selected institutions for around 15 years, according to the proposals.

A corpus fund worth a total of US$1.8 billion has been earmarked to support the publicly funded universities under the scheme, with a higher level of autonomy granted to the selected institutions, while private universities will be eligible to access government funds only for particular ‘world-class’ studies and projects.

“The greatest problem of higher education in India is shortage of funds and once this is removed there will be a greater chance for growth in STEM subjects. These subjects are the ones that respond fastest to improved funding and autonomy,” says Rajiv Lochan, member of the Punjab State Higher Education Council and director of the Internal Quality Assurance Cell of Panjab University.

“As of today, it does seem that the social sciences and humanities will be left behind,” says Lochan.

Lochan says the scheme will help the 20 selected institutions to grow and provide leadership to others – provided they are actually given the promised academic, administrative and financial autonomy.

Under the proposals to the cabinet, new private universities can lose their Institution of Eminence tag if they do not "make enough progress" within the first two years, and can be replaced by institutions on a reserve list.

Several of the 23 Indian Institutes of Technology are expected to be the main beneficiaries, but Indian Institutes of Management will also be eligible although they are not universities.

International faculty

A feature of the scheme that sets it apart from earlier initiatives to improve higher education is the involvement of international faculty, though only those from globally top ranked universities will be considered.

On 23 May, India’s Minister for Science and Technology Harsh Vardhan announced the launch in June of the ‘Visiting Advanced Joint Research Faculty' or VAJRA scheme, providing incentives for the world’s top science academics to teach in India’s best institutions and enhance their global rankings.

Under the VAJRA scheme, foreign faculty members will be able reside in India for up to three months in a year and be paid US$15,000 for the first month and US$10,000 per month for the remaining two months. For the rest of the year the academics, expected to number 1,000 at any point in time, would remain as adjunct faculty members and co-guide students working for their PhD degrees.

Selection of eligible institutions is to be made by an 'empowered expert committee' or EEC with up to five eminent persons appointed for three years, with the final approval to be made by a cabinet committee headed by the prime minister. The EEC will ensure quality, decide on appeals, sponsorships and manage corpus funds.

According to Lochan, much will depend on the EEC’s ability to choose institutions with potential and then keep a sharp eye on them. “Will the experts be able to do so? Only time will tell. But certainly, this will be an opportunity for them to change Indian higher education in significant ways,” he says.

Institutions will have a free hand in selecting students through a merit-based, transparent process. They may decide their own fee structure, while ensuring that meritorious students are not denied admission for lack of funds. They are also free to accept foreign students up to a maximum of 30% of the student body.