When will India build world-class research universities?

It is true to say that India in 2020 does not have any world-class research universities.

It does have several outstanding research institutes in various scientific fields. It also has some excellent technology and management institutions – the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management. And a few outstanding public institutions, such as the Indian Institute of Science, and some excellent private initiatives such as Manipal, Ashoka, and a few others.

But none of these are comprehensive research universities that can compare with the best universities globally – or which are recognised by any of the global higher education rankings.

Without question, India needs some world-class research universities. India has an expanding economy and plays an increasingly important role in global affairs. Indian brainpower plays a key role in Silicon Valley in the United States and Indians can be found at the top ranks of universities around the world.

But India is not yet a scientific or research power. For India to be fully successful as a global scientific and intellectual force, it needs research universities.

This requirement has finally been recognised in several of the impressive initiatives proposed by the Government of India – most importantly the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, approved by the government in August, and programmes such as the Global Initiative of Academic Networks, the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) and several others.

A differentiated academic system

Research universities are necessarily a small but central part of a differentiated academic system. India, which now has the second-largest student enrolment in the world, has a highly complex but poorly articulated academic system.

It is important to recognise the importance of having research universities at the pinnacle of that system, but to understand that the number of such institutions is a small part of the total – and that choosing which universities will be research-intensive is quite important.

The NEP suggests that about 100 universities be identified as research universities in the near future. These universities will focus strongly on research and doctoral programmes, in addition to having high quality education at bachelor and masters degree levels.

The rest of the more than 900 universities will be teaching universities, which will mainly deliver high quality education. These universities are also expected to do a modest amount of research and have small doctoral programmes.

This differentiation is extremely important, since without carefully articulating this, all universities try to do both research and education without adequate resources or the quality of faculty that is needed for high quality research, meaning they will end up being mediocre at both.

How the research universities will be differentiated from the rest must be done in a transparent manner using a sound classification framework (like the Carnegie Classification in the United States) that uses a few important measures of research, such as the size of doctoral programmes, the number of research faculty with doctorates, the level of research funding, publications and citations, among others. (The Carnegie framework was adapted for India in a paper published in Higher Education last year, which identified about 70 universities from the top 200 in the NIRF as research universities).

Some have argued that India needs to develop its own university model. While a research university, or any academic institution, must take into account national realities, the basic model of the research university is well established and necessarily reflects the patterns followed by the best universities globally.

China, which has been quite successful in developing a number of successful research universities by, among other things, spending vast sums of money on the effort, talked about “universities with Chinese characteristics”.

In fact their successful universities follow established, mainly Western, models. Indeed, the main elements that are ‘Chinese’ are negative – limitations on academic freedom, restrictions on access to some information and too much bureaucracy – and actually slow down progress.

Thus, successful Indian research universities will inevitably resemble the best universities worldwide.

Pathways to excellence

India has traditionally taken the path of creating small and specialised institutions in areas like engineering, medicine, law, social sciences, business and others – the best known of which are the Indian Institutes of Technology.

Globally, however, most research universities tend to be multidisciplinary. The reason for this is that, in the modern world, where the main challenges are multidisciplinary, high quality innovation and research require institutions to have multiple disciplines in the same university.

The NEP, in keeping with this globally successful approach, expects all research universities to scale up and become multidisciplinary, each having up to 25,000 students.

If the existing top Indian institutions and universities can expand in size and add more disciplines, this will provide them with the scale and disciplinary diversity needed to be included in the world’s top research universities.

It may also be possible to merge some existing institutions, as has been successfully done in France recently.

India has several important advantages as it emerges as an academic power. The widespread use of English means that India is immediately part of global scientific communication.

India also has a sizable cadre of accomplished academics and researchers – both within the country and as part of the diaspora. Creating a productive academic environment for the most talented academics requires careful attention, good organisation and adequate funding.

Involving the diaspora is quite important as the talent pool is immense – a significant number of Indians currently serve as university presidents and provosts of, for example, American universities, and could contribute knowledge about building research universities, even if they do not actually return to India.

Similarly, Indian professors in the diaspora can contribute to building research capacity by participating in collaborative research and other initiatives.

The research universities need substantially expanded resources for research. Current levels of funding for research in universities is dramatically insufficient – India has consistently underfunded all aspects of higher education in the past.

The NEP has correctly identified this as an area to be developed and has proposed establishing a National Research Foundation which will have significant funds for supporting research in four areas – technology, science, social science and arts and humanities.

The NEP also suggests that the different ministries should set aside funds for research, increase investment in research and enhance linkages of universities with the economy and society.

Overall, if these measures are implemented well, it will enhance the level of research in universities while making them more relevant for society and more globally competitive.

Research universities also need full autonomy – they are too complex to be governed in any other manner. That is why even the publicly funded institutions in most developed countries enjoy almost full autonomy, with little or no direct involvement by the government in the management or governance of these institutions.

The NEP has recommended making research universities fully autonomous, with self-perpetuating boards having a very limited representation of government people or government appointees, with the board selecting and appointing the chief executive.

This would be a dramatic change from current Indian practice where the government appoints top leaders and controls the purse strings.

These changes in the board structure and appointment of the chief executive, in addition to increased funding, could usher in a new dynamism in public research universities in India. The NEP also recommends full financial autonomy for universities.

The stars are aligned for India to play an important part in the global knowledge system and to build world-class research universities. The talent exists, the need is clear and there are some promising initiatives from the government. The challenge is no longer a lack of ideas – it is sustained support and effective implementation. But in the Indian context, these are indeed significant hurdles.

Philip G Altbach is research professor and founding director, Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, USA. Pankaj Jalote is distinguished professor and founding director, Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology Delhi, India.