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Reviving India’s laggard universities

EducationWorld June 2021 | Teacher-2-teacher

Political will is required to grasp several thorny nettles and radically restructure India’s isolationist higher education system to improve the ranking of our universities in global league tables, says Amarendra Sahoo

The London-based Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) which publishes its World University Rankings rating the world’s Top 1,000 universities, recently released its 2021 list. Only 21 Indian institutions are included in this authoritative, diligently compiled and globally respected league table of the world’s most respected higher education institutions (HEIs), against 24 last year. Of them only three feature among the global Top 200 — Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay ranked #172 followed by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore (185) and IIT-Delhi (193). However, all three have lost rank compared to last year. The next respectably ranked Indian HEI is IIT-Madras at #275.

Amarendra Sahoo

Neighbouring China on the other hand has 84 universities featured in the 2021 QS Top 1000 league table with four ranked in the Top 50. This despite India hosting four of the oldest modern era universities — Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee (estb. 1847), University of Mumbai (1857), University of Calcutta (1857) and University of Madras (1857). It’s somewhat chastening to learn that the globally top-ranked Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA was established in 1861.

The reasons behind the poor academic standing of India’s HEIs and universities in particular are numerous ranging from chronic under-funding, excessive government control and lack of autonomy, over-subsidisation of tuition fees, to poor academy-industry interface and a conspicuous deficit of research culture. However, one of the major causes of the poor ranking of Indian higher education institutions in the QS (and Times Higher Education) annual league tables is that they have remained closed, insular organisations shut off from the global academic community. They have made little effort to collaborate and interface with academics and universities in other countries. In the QS 2021 rankings even India’s top-ranked HEIs are awarded rock-bottom scores under the parameter of internationalisation, i.e, ratio of international faculty and students. Unlike China which has invited acclaimed American universities including Yale, UC Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Duke and New York universities and Nottingham University, UK, to establish full-fledged bricks-n-mortar campuses in that country, neither the Congress-led UPA-I and II governments (2004-2014) nor the incumbent BJP-led NDA government has yet permitted foreign universities to plant their flags on Indian soil. Nor has it allowed any meaningful collaboration between Indian and foreign universities. Although several private universities have signed academic exchanges and dual-degree programmes with second rung universities abroad, none of the Central and state government-run universities have been permitted to sign full-fledged collaboration agreements.

That there is strong public demand for superior, high-quality education dispensed by foreign universities is in-controvertible. Every year, an estimated 600,000 school and college leavers from India travel abroad to study in top-ranked universities in the US, UK, Singapore and Australia despite their levying higher tuition fees— astronomical by Indian standards.

Fortunately, even if belatedly, the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 released on July 29 last year, takes an unambiguous stand on connecting India’s isolationist HEIs with global academia. It states that the world’s Top 100 universities will be “facilitated” to operate in the country under a new law to be enacted by Parliament. This statement of intent entirely reverses the BJP’s earlier stand on The Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operations) Bill, 2010, tabled in Parliament by the UPA-II government which lapsed because of fierce opposition from the BJP and RSS, its ideological mentor organisation.

However while it is easy to issue a statement of intent to reconnect India’s HEIs with the world beyond national borders, implementing this resolution of NEP 2020 will require political will to grasp several thorny nettles, and radical restructuring of the higher education system. For one, following disruption of higher education worldwide and massive switch to online learning because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the desire of top-ranked foreign universities to establish bricks-n-mortar campuses abroad — especially in third world countries — has gone out of fashion. At best foreign varsities will be interested in offering blended learning programmes within Indian HEIs.

Secondly, they are unlikely to offer their intellectual property at the rock-bottom pricing of government universities. This will necessitate ending the current over-subsidisation of higher education and raising tuition fees, a hot potato issue for India’s subsidies-addicted middle class, and introducing a massive student loans programme. Then there is the issue of raising remuneration to attract foreign and diaspora faculty who are unlikely to be enthused by the low pay scales of government universities. In sum, although internationalisation of India’s languishing HEIs has been accepted in principle by NEP 2020, the road ahead is steep and arduous.

An alumnus of JNU, IIT-Bombay & Duke University, Dr. Amarendra Sahoo is chairman of the Grameen Pragati Foundation, Mumbai.

Also Read:  8 Indian institutes among top 100 in QS Asia University Rankings

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