What freedoms do ‘institutions of eminence’ need?

Early in August 2017 Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet agreed to a proposal to fund the creation of 20 ‘institutions of eminence’ in India’s already complex higher education system. This is the latest effort in a series of attempts by successive governments to create ‘world-class universities’ on the sub-continent.

Last week the Ministry of Human Resource Development and the University Grants Commission opened a 90-day window for applications from existing public and private institutions and from sponsoring bodies wishing to establish a new site. A committee of experts will assess the applications with a goal of selecting 10 public and 10 private sites by March 2018.

The chosen 20 will receive resources and some degree of freedom from regulation as they implement a five-year plan towards a medium-term ‘strategic vision’.

While the 10 private institutions can be either existing entities or greenfield sites backed by a significant corpus of private capital, all 10 of the public institutions are to be existing publicly financed organisations, which include technical and management institutes, central universities and arts institutes.

The chosen public institutions will be able to draw upon a combined pool of Rs10,000 crore (INR100 billion or US$1.5 billion) in addition to their usual public funding.

Selection criteria

Selecting these 10 institutions will be a daunting task. The main higher education regulatory body issued guidelines in 2016 setting forth 19 criteria that a ‘world-class university’ in the public sector would be expected to meet. The criteria include being multi-disciplinary and being nationally or internationally accredited.

Some criteria concern inputs like attaining a 1:10 faculty to student ratio within a reasonable time. Others are simple throughput measures, such as scaling up to become a 20,000-student institution in 15 years. Still others will lead to a definitional debate, such as the proposed publication rate for faculty expressed in numbers of peer-reviewed articles with the omission of scholarly books and book chapters.

Not all of the 19 criteria are of equal importance, but their relative importance remains unstated. Criteria like the establishment of set ratios could result in a reduction of institutional diversity by encouraging university leaders to cling to a narrow set of activities, resulting in universities trying to look and act the same.

Institutional leaders will have important decisions to make. For example, pursuing merit-based and needs-blind student admissions and bolstering financial student assistance programmes are likely to have a greater impact on the intellectual culture of an institution than building or expanding amenities such as student and faculty housing, which move money away from core academic activities.

Yet faculty housing is often an important factor in attracting and retaining talent to academic posts, an issue that bedevils most higher education institutions in India.

Using international ranking schema to monitor the progress of the 10 public institutions is likely to divert attention away from the hard to measure long-term task of developing an organisational ethos of continuous quality improvement towards narrow compliance with measures like research journal’s impact factors.

All the current ranking methods are flawed as tools policy-makers can use to foster excellence. They serve principally as barometers of prestige and reputation shaped in large measure by wealth, selectivity and some aspects of research production.

The formulae used to knit these together have changed over time and because of this are less valuable as a means of monitoring progress. Rankings pay little attention to one of the most important aspects of education, teaching and learning, because it is difficult to measure.

Freedom vs labyrinths

There are some freedoms offered to the 10 selected public institutions. Loosening of the regulatory constraints and reducing micromanagement by central agencies will be welcome and necessary.

The current administrative and managerial frameworks are burdensome and campuses find them unhelpful. Coupled with judicial intrusion where the courts end up shaping management and admissions decisions, they produce what Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta call a “labyrinth”.

In fact, the intricacies of physical mazes are child’s play compared to the labyrinths created by laws, regulations and the vicissitudes of history that have been shaped by venal and even corrupt behaviour and the follies and decisions of politicians, judges and academics.

This sort of maze constitutes a much more heroic labour than vanquishing the Minotaur in the palace basement in ancient Crete. This maze seeks to constrain and frustrate the aspirations of millions of young people who seek a good quality higher education that will help them live full and productive lives and build a better nation.

The ‘freedoms’ to be extended to the public institutions include setting both fees for foreign students and the salaries offered to foreign faculty, along with some discretion in establishing admissions procedures. These are important operational aspects of university life, but there are other elements of organisational culture that will need to be addressed if these 10 public sites are to become truly eminent both nationally and globally.

These include building a robust research culture and moving from narrow disciplinary siloes towards configurations of interdisciplinary activities aimed at solving pressing societal and technical problems in addition to advancing basic science.

Public institutions would benefit greatly from additional autonomy in governance. The Indian Institutes of Management and the Indian Institutes of Technology are already moving towards greater self-government. However, the larger public universities are hampered by complex, arcane management procedures that constrain them not only at the institutional level but at the school and departmental level.

Administrative and personnel matters are seldom addressed at lower levels of the institution and so decision-making is laborious and slow. The modes and methods of work seem unchanged from the UK Civil Service of the 1900s.

The financial management capabilities of the existing elite institutions are quite modest and the regulatory frameworks give institutional leaders little authority or discretion to redeploy these resources.

There are constraints for where funds can be invested and little incentive to seek efficiencies or more cost-effective ways of working because saved funds can’t be used as seed money for new ventures.

All of these will make it difficult for the intellectually able men and women who are leading these public institutions to be successful.

An inter-disciplinary future

India has some fine universities. The Indian Institutes of Technology or IITs, especially the older ones, are excellent institutions. Yet, like Boston’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology which added the social sciences to its mission, the IITs need to expand their disciplinary base to be academically broader organisations if they are to compete for world-class status.

This is not simply a quest to be bigger or more comprehensive. It is more a recognition that much of the important intellectual work of this era is inter-disciplinary, just as many of the pressing problems of the world, like delivering clean water to all households, require multi-disciplinary solutions.

It is easier to form cross-discipline teams when the participants are co-located and when they respect each other; things that are easier to achieve when you belong to the same academic community.

One of India’s particular challenges in higher education is that much of its research activity is locked up in institutes that are separate from universities and colleges. This is a legacy of decisions taken in the 1950s to divide these functions.

There are benefits to separating these functions. The resulting specialisation assists in the formation of a strong culture and fosters excellence in a specific domain. The strength of India’s atomic energy agency and associated research groups is a prime example.

However, there are also constraints. A narrow focus can foster insularity, with the result that researchers lose touch with practitioners and industry, a problem exacerbated by the low turnover in personnel.

Finally, regardless of the criteria the government of India chooses to use, this is ultimately a reform strategy aimed at concentrating resources on a tiny percentage of the nation’s 785 universities.

Concentration strategies

Other nations pursuing ‘world-class universities’ have adopted a concentration strategy. They fund some sites more generously than others, sometimes very significantly so.

Advocates of resource concentration argue that given the scarcity of funding and talent, targeting a small group of institutions will produce excellence in academic outputs, especially better learning and better research. This results in the establishment of practices that other institutions can emulate.

This is a classic debate in public resource allocation – selectivity and focus versus inclusivity and breadth. How it is resolved depends on the desired end. Is it to create an elite institution or is it to make some improvement in all institutions?

Sceptics challenge the wisdom of concentrating public resources and policy attention in one or even 10 institutions that serve a small proportion of the population. They argue that concentration increases inequities by widening the gap between a privileged few attending the beneficiary institution and those who go to study elsewhere or who cannot get a university place because places are not available.

Allocating a lot of the national education budget to a few sites constrains the development of other institutions and limits the nation’s capacity to provide more places for the many young people who currently miss out on higher education altogether.

This strategic choice to invest in a few eminent institutions comes at a time when the government of India wants to increase the gross enrolment rate, lift the general quality of the system and improve research productivity.

Finding the right path through this maze of competing options is the task facing the government of India and the states and territories. They need to avoid the dead ends of over-regulating institutions and patronage in the selection of university leaders, while broadening access and lifting research and innovation. That makes corralling the Minotaur look like an easy job.

Alan Ruby is a senior scholar at the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania, USA. Matthew Hartley is the associate dean of the Graduate School of Education, professor of education and the founding executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania, USA.