Two steps forward, a step back
Of late, there has been much talk about establishing “world-class universities” in India. Recently, while addressing the gathering at the centenary celebrations of Patna University, the Prime Minister said, “We will provide assistance of ₹ 10,000 crore to ten private universities and an equal number of government universities, for a period of 5 years.” He proudly called it a “step forward” towards making the 20 universities “world class.” Is it really a “step forward”?
It is a matter of great concern for us that Indian universities do not make it to the top 200 universities published by the Times Higher Education (THE) and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings. Educationists have raised this issue and discussed it in many forums and this author too has written about it. Our disappointment and frustration that we could not compete with top-notch universities in the world resulted in the setting up of the National Institute Ranking Framework (NIRF) by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) in September 2015 in order to rank the Indian universities. It is yet to be assessed whether the indigenous ranking system has had a positive impact on the Indian tertiary education or whether the quality of education has improved as desired.
The idea of establishing “world-class universities” in India was mooted over a year ago. As per the UGC (World Class Institutions Deemed to be Universities) Regulations, 2016, one of the objectives of a world-class institution is “to be rated internationally for its teaching and research as a top hundred institution in the world.” Doesn’t it sound great? Yes, it does. It implies that, like any other institution of global repute, these “world class institutions” should have a transparent system, well-qualified and productive international academics known for their innovative and creative thinking and useful contributions to the society, a significant proportion of meritorious international students, a high level of academic as well as administrative autonomy, adequate financial assistance, well-equipped laboratories and facilities for research, successful institution-industry partnerships, distinguished alumni, and so on. QS and THE rankings evaluate universities based on the diversity of the faculty, quality of teaching, impact of research, diversity of the student community, international outlook and reputation with employers. Will the select Indian universities have all these facilities and be ready to be evaluated by global organisations?
With these enormous challenges, it may not be possible for the 20 select universities to emerge as world-class universities in a short period of time. No quick-fix solutions will work in our favour. It may take over a period of thirty to forty years, or more if these universities earnestly try to shine in each of the aspects mentioned above.
Now let us look critically at the idea of establishing world class universities in India. Some might consider it a noble vision. But, is it important to compete with American and British universities to make some of our universities “world class”? If it were to be considered a reform, as some politicians and policymakers think and try to make us believe, is it one that we need in India today? Is India capable of establishing, or willing to establish such world-class universities? Even if it is capable of doing, or willing to do so, can the proposal be justified when numerous government-run and private schools lack basic infrastructural facilities and the quality of primary and secondary education is so low that even after finishing Class VIII many students cannot read and write? The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), 2016, states that less than 75% of Class VIII students in rural Maharashtra can read a Class II text.
The first question that policymakers and educationists should ask, is why our Indian universities have failed to figure among the 200 universities in the world. Developed countries like the U.S., the U.K., Canada and Australia do not focus only on tertiary education and select universities. They have a holistic approach to education. Their focus is not only on tertiary education but on primary and secondary education as well. In India, this is not the case. Focusing on the development of only a few educational institutions at the tertiary level, and neglecting the development of primary and secondary education will lead to disaster. Our policymakers have failed to realise that this will create inequality in the society and polarise the nation. It is not good for India in the long run and, therefore, is not desirable, even if it is possible.
A few of the problems that our tertiary education faces today include academic dishonesty, lack of originality, plagiarism, purposeless research, lack of creative and critical thinking in academics as well as researchers, and interference from the government. Unless genuine efforts are taken to address these issues, it will be futile to aim for internationally top-ranked institutions. Let us assume that two or three of our universities made it to the list of THE or QS top 200 universities in the world. Would it change the face of India? No.
What reforms do we need to make our education system robust? Academic autonomy should be promoted. Like judiciary, academia should also be independent. The government should prioritise its goals. Improving the quality of primary and secondary education should take precedence. Efforts to strengthen the foundation should be taken. Students must be taught to become creative and critical thinkers; they should be encouraged to ask right questions and motivated to find answers by themselves. In the poem ‘Where the mind is without fear’, Rabindranath Tagore has clearly stated the goal of education. It should enable students to face the challenges of the 21st century confidently.
Operating bullet trains in one part of the country cannot make our country a super nation. India will be considered a super nation only if everyone has access to the bullet train. Creation of a few “world class universities” cannot make India a developed nation. India will become a developed nation only if the quality of the primary and secondary education system is of global repute. If the foundation is strong, tertiary education, over a period of time, too will improve and that will be a real “step forward”.