The short answer to the question is, “a lot”. It is one thing to live off the glory of Nalanda and Taxila in the hoary past,or Allahabad, Aligarh, Banaras, Calcutta and Mysore more recently. It is quite another to do a reality check and realise just how far our universities have fallen behind. In neither of the two most respected university rankings worldwide, namely, Times Higher Education (THE) and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) does any Indian university or institute of higher education including the much vaunted IITs, IIMs and Indian Institute of Science (IISc), rank even in the top 200. In the QS rankings, IISc and Punjab are clubbed in the 276-300 range as our best, whereas in the THE rankings, IIT Bombay comes in at 222 as the highest ranked Indian institution. At the same time, universities in our Asian neighbours China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Malaysia are breaking through into the top echelons of universities worldwide and challenging the dominance of those in North America and Europe, much as they have challenged the economic dominance of those regions.
#1. Face the reality: Ostrich like, we could reject such rankings and stay insular and complacent or we could introspect and try to learn from the best practices of our Asian neighbours. It may be worthwhile for our establishment to ponder how is it that a young university like the National University of Singapore (NUS) has leapfrogged into becoming number one in Asia and number 22 globally overtaking names such as UC Berkeley and Duke, and that too in a short span of 10-15 years? How is it that China can claim at least two universities in the top 50 (Tsinghua and Peking) whereas we do not even figure in the top 200? Such introspection should be systematic and translate into meaningful action and not just a temporary beating of chest and then back to business as usual.
#2. Attract world class faculty: The core of any university’s excellence is attracting and retaining world class faculty. Asian universities especially in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia boast of a diverse and accomplished international faculty, many of them Indians. Blind to nationality, race or colour, they seek to attract and incentivise the best the world has to offer. Even our much maligned neighbour Pakistan has an innovative Foreign Faculty Hiring Programme pioneered by its Higher Education Commission (similar to our University Grants Commission, UGC), under which foreign nationals and Pakistani expatriates with a distinguished teaching and research record are placed at public universities. There was a time when our universities were run by towering personalities such as KN Raj, VKRV Rao, Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee and Zakir Hussain who could attract the best scholars, but now they are run by stifling bureaucracies capped by the iron fist of UGC. There is a telling story of how in the late 1950s then Vice Chancellor of Delhi University (DU) VKRV Rao met the renowned sociologist MN Srinivas at the Guntakal railway station while the latter was enroute on a train and invited him to start the Department of Sociology at DU! But that was then.
#3. Incentivise research: To create an environment that fosters excellence in research and pedagogy universities in the tiny city states of Hong Kong and Singapore have created a system of incentives that recognise and reward research and teaching. Base salaries are topped up with bonuses based on publications in top journals, teaching performance and securing research grants. NUS, for example, ranks journals for each discipline. A publication in a Tier I journal is differentiated (and rewarded) compared to that in a lower tier or anunranked journal. By contrast, our UGC has created a point system (the API) where each paper in any journal with an ISBN/ISSN number gets 15 points! To game the system fake "international" journals have mushroomed. As a former colleague at the Delhi School of Economics once remarked “university babus don’t know how to read, they only know how to count”!
#4. Reward merit and output: Our universities treat all faculty alike with standardised pay scales and annual increments as if they were government servants. They recoil in horror at any notion of rewarding merit through advance increments or bonuses. With regard to research grants, negotiating the labyrinth of university red tape dampens any incentive to secure and utilise research grants. Procuring equipment takes ages given cumbersome tendering requirements and salaries to research staff are rigidly regulated by university babus. In contrast at NUS all new faculty is eligible for a startup grant of at least $180,000 with a focus on deliverables such as research papers.
#5. Focus on reflective thinking and not rote learning: Finally, nimbleness in introducing new courses and learning methods is emphasised by our Asian neighbours. This keeps degrees contemporary and relevant. Faculty does not have to wait years to update curriculum and go through layers of university level nitpicking decision making bodies to introduce new papers and courses. Open book exams, group work and projects, case study methods and other pedagogical innovations are the order of the day at universities in Singapore and Hong Kong. The emphasis is on acquiring knowledge and the ability to think critically. But even today at most Indian universities including the vaunted DU, closed book, end of semester, timebound exams are the norm. The emphasis is on regurgitation of facts and not learning.
How can India aspire to be a leading nation with the third largest economy in the world and at the same time be saddled with mediocre institutions of higher learning? The knowledge economy is the way of the future and universities are central to this future. It is time our policymakers realised this and learnt from our Asian neighbours.
Shreekant Gupta is adjunct faculty at the LKY School of Public Policy, Singapore and at Delhi University. Swati Madan is with the Centre for Civil Society, New Delhi. The views expressed by the authors are personal.
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