Focus on improving quality, not number of IoEs

by Arvind Panagariya

As in school education, India has broadly won the battle of numbers in higher education. The Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER), which measures the number of students enrolled in higher education institutions (HEIs) as percentage of population aged 18-23 years, has risen from 8.1% in 2000-01to 25.2% in 2016-17. But just as in school education, the battle for quality of education has barely begun.

One dimension of the quality is the number of universities recognised globally for the quality of their education and research. How does India do along this dimension?

India Absent

In the 2018 Times Higher Education (THE) university rankings, no Indian university appears in the top 200 institutions. China has two in the first 100 and another two in the 101-200 category. Among the institutions ranked between 201 and 600, India has six and China 19. Several smaller Asian countries — Hong Kong with three in the top 100 and two in the 101-200 category, South Korea with two in each category, Singapore with two in the top 100, and Taiwan with one university in the 101-200 category — do better than us in this ranking.

Global university rankings give an inordinately large weight to research. For example, THE rankings assign 30% weight directly to research and another 30% to citations, which measure the influence of research. Institutions with less than 1,000 articles in the preceding four years are automatically excluded. The weight of teaching in THE rankings is 30%. This leaves 7.5% weightage for internationalisation in terms of students, faculty and collaborations, and 2.5% weightage for influence on industry.

While India has created high-quality institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), they all remain largely teaching institutions. Their reputations are largely built on the brilliant students they get to select out of avery large talented pool. In terms of volume and influence of research, which measure faculty quality, we do not score as well as competing institutions globally.

Part of our problem is faulty institutional design at inception: we relegated research to councils, which do not form a part of universities. We, thus, implicitly adopted the philosophy that universities were there only for teaching.

The decision to create institutions of eminence, which would strive to achieve high positions in the global rankings, is the first time that we have formally recognised the importance of research at universities. But this is only the first step in a long journey. It is also a project that would require far more resources than the government has recognised at this point.

To begin with, the initial decision to go with as many as 10 public universities and 10 private ones was a flawed one. With our limited financial resources, such large numbers mean giving each chosen institution a tiny amount of resources. That is a recipe for failure. Other countries in India’s neighbourhood, which have achieved success, have devoted vast volumes of resources on the selected institutions.

China, with a size comparable to India’s, first singled out two universities, Peking and Tsinghua, as a part of its 1998 ‘World-Class Universities’ project. It allocated $240 million to each university over the first three years of the programme ($40 million in 1999, $80 million in 2000 and $120 million in 2001). Other universities were added later, but at significantly lower levels of funding. China’s ‘Double World-Class Universities’ project, launched in 2015, retains this philosophy. Once again, it allocated the largest volume of resources to Peking and Tsinghua.

Three Times Lucky

Building up research rich in volume, reputation and influence in a relatively short period of time would require hiring world-class faculty and providing them state-of-the-art labs and equipment. This cannot be done without large volume of resources and, hence, the need for a focused approach.

In this background, the decision to limit the recent list of ‘Institutions of Eminence’ (IoE) to six is a very welcome one. The three chosen public institutions, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), IIT-Bombay and IIT-Delhi, are no doubt our best, and have the greatest potential to make it to the top 200 lists of global ranking provided GoI provides them sufficient resources, and the existing faculty in the institutions rise above the narrow selfish interest and invest resources in ways that would help build research reputation, including hiring the top scholars from around the world.

Among new universities, India’s greatest hope is from the greenfield project, Jio University. The decision to go for a greenfield project was brilliant and bold. A new university can write its rules from scratch. It is not hamstrung by an existing mediocre faculty, which can block the hiring of world-class faculty by insisting on minimum deviation in salary from what it receives.

Promoters of Jio University now have a huge responsibility to deliver. If they appoint world-class academics as members to its board, commit enough financial resources and do not meddle in its affairs, they would have won half the battle.

For five years, GoI should resist enlarging the list of IoEs and invest the entire resources originally earmarked for the project into the chosen three public institutions. With a halfhearted effort relying on small volume of resources, the project would have the same fate as numerous past schemes that have tried to do too much with too little resources.