The road to sustainable world-class universities

India is the world’s seventh-largest economy and has advanced in several fields of technology and science. But it has failed to achieve its decade-long dream of having world-class universities to showcase its technical and economic power to the world.

The government has recently allotted several thousand crore (tens of billions of rupees or hundreds of millions of dollars) to make this dream a reality, but will this work? In traditional world-class universities, there is a culture of research and practice that encourages innovation and entrepreneurship. How is that best cultivated?

The Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2018 lists only a few of India’s institutions. Yet the country has potential. There are two Indian institutes in the 251 to 400 range of the THE ranking. One is the Indian Institute of Science and the other is the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. There are another 40 universities and institutes that have the potential to attain a top 500 ranking.

The government should look at a range of objectives to improve performance in the rankings. Its primary objective may be to focus on the two top-ranking Indian institutes and getting them into the top 100 ranking. To do so, they need a maximum average score of 60-65; they currently have an average score in the 40-45 range.

The second objective is to bring all the other 40 universities in the 500 to 1,000 range into the top 500. These universities’ total scores range from 30 to 9 and they need at least a minimum average score of 55 to enter the top 200 and-or a 35-40 average score to enter the top 500. This is possible in the next couple of years with government effort and investment.

There are short-term and long-term ways of achieving these aims. The government should not differentiate between private and public universities that it wants to be world class and should focus on creating a world-class infrastructure in which to do research as well as improving Indian industry awareness of the importance of innovation.

The government needs to join forces with industry to invest in research and development. The central government finance, science and technology ministries must create a special national research fund through a special new tax and ensure accountability when it distributes the funds for which this tax is used.

Short-term actions

First, the government should grant a special status to these top institutes and bring them under one umbrella by giving them a special name under a special law which grants them greater autonomy.

The government must find a way to get transnational and multinational industries to support the research projects of these institutes. Indian international organisations must be asked to support these institutes. Moreover, all the international and multinational organisations that are working in India should give a certain amount of research and development projects to these institutes.

The government must announce special incentives for the faculties, students or teams for getting projects, publications, PhDs, etc. This is essential to change the culture in these institutes.

They should accept international students of non-Indian origin through GRE, TOEFL, SAT, IELTS and other standard exams accepted by American and European countries. One cannot expect international students to pass Indian exams at this point in time. Institutes should be able to admit those students who are able to communicate well in English.

A special government scholarship scheme for international students should be set up in keeping with international standards – or surpassing them.

A special scheme should be created to admit the international students into these institutes. Places should be reserved for different countries.

International students (undergraduate, masters and PhD students) should be permitted to visit these institutes for short-term and long-term study. Indian students should be permitted to visit other international institutions in the same way, particularly the top 100 world-class institutions.

The institutes must create classrooms, teaching aids and lab facilities that are on a par with international standards.

Investment should be made in luxury international-standard board and lodging facilities for faculty as well as students.

Foreign teachers should be appointed based on an international-standard salary and perks on the basis of three- or five-year tenure track. Retired world-class university faculty should also be encouraged to teach in these institutes.

Increasing the faculty to student ratio of these institutes is another big challenge. The main problem with these top institutes is the very slow process in making appointments and the low salaries.

Second, these institutes must find a way of appointing local faculty on a tenure track basis at a lower grade and training or sponsoring them to do their doctorate or post-doctoral study. More than 60% to 70% of top-ranking university faculty are appointed under tenure track. The same practice has to be adopted in Indian institutes.

In the world-class rankings there are some Indian private institutions that have the ability to reach the international level. But they face challenges such as unrestricted intakes, a lack of policy, a lack of finance, etc. Therefore, the government must find a way to treat private institutes on a par with the government universities.

Ministries of state and central government and private and public industries must launch and fund collaborative industrial affiliate programmes in these institutes in larger numbers. Industries should be compelled to give projects and funds to the institutes.

Student and staff ratios need to be improved in all educational institutes in India on a par with global standards.

Political interference at all levels in the education system must be eliminated. Unfortunately, merit is taking a backseat in educational institutes.

Per capita spending on education and research must increase so that Indian institutions can compete with global universities.

Long-term actions

An Indian ‘international committee’ comprising several sub-committees in different fields of expertise should be established immediately. The committee must be permitted to visit various world-class international institutes. The committee should exist for at least 10 years. It should have foreign experts as members.

The Indian system needs to learn from international ideas and standards with regard to product innovation.

All the institutes should set up funds and endowments to sustain these activities over time. Central government must find a special way to strengthen these funds over time. A tax exemption scheme should be made available to those contributing to such a scheme.

All these institutes must be able to host international lectures by eminent personalities.

A centre should be set up specially to study the quality and productivity of world-class universities.

International approach

Over the past three decades, especially after the opening up of its economy, India has emerged as one of the big global powers in terms of quantity of students. Now, it is time for a rethink and to focus on quality.

Simply spending money will not lead to world-class status. Only by adopting the international approach to innovation and entrepreneurship will the country achieve the elite status of world-class universities in the long run.

Dr R Ponnusamy is a professor in the department of computer science and engineering, CVR College of Engineering, Hyderabad, India. Email: