Tuesday, November 02, 2010

India Needs Real Universities

A few days ago we have some discussion on this blog regarding a few problems with higher education in India and how to fix it.

One solution suggested was privatisation. I have mixed views about this. Just because the model works for the US doesn’t mean it will work for India too. Corporate philanthropy has a weak history in India. It might, it might not. Also, I don’t see why the govt. cannot open more good universities. After all, they are running the IITs, aren’t they?

The second point was that there’s a huge mismatch between industry expectation and education. In short, the industry doesn’t expect much of the students. It is not surprising then that universities don’t even bother to deliver. Unless something changes about how businesses operate in India, I don’t see why the universities would want to change. On the other hand, it’s also a chicken and egg problem. Who is going to bring about this change in the industry? The very same university graduates that we’re talking about!

I strongly believe that what India needs are real universities. On one hand we have the so called ‘Institutes of National Importance’ (e.g. IITs) which are tiny islands of so called excellence. A huge amount of resources are spent in keeping these running and the corresponding number of students taught is minuscule. On the other hand are ‘hub and spoke’ state universities. The last I knew, there were more than 40 engineering colleges in Indore. Most of them are affiliated to something called the Rajeev Gandhi Prodyogiki Vishwavidyala (RGPV). The only purpose of this RGPV is to set up question papers and award degrees. None of the tasks of a real university – research and innovation and curation of knowledge – are talked about.

The model is not much different from how schools are affiliated to CBSE or various state boards. Such colleges and universities are nothing but glorified high-schools.


  1. I only ever heard very high praise of Indian universities, so it's interesting to see this critical post.

  2. You said, "One solution suggested was privatisation. I have mixed views about this. Just because the model works for the US doesn’t mean it will work for India too."

    Privatisation? In the US? What are you talking about?

    Yes, there are private (but not for profit) universities in the US, but a vast majority of American students still get their college and university education at publicly funded institutions.

  3. @Clarissa: Well, we hear that about the US universities too. Doesn't mean you guys don't criticise yourself. :)

    Self-criticism is a healthy attitude.

    @Abi - Sir, I was responding to the first comment here http://vinodkhare.blogspot.com/2010/10/gaping-hole-in-indian-higher-education.html

    Thanks for pointing out the fallacy!

  4. There is a more fundamental problem. We need to get our basic graduation and polytechnic colleges in shape first. Professional education is relatively well looked after, but your usual degree colleges are a mess and most graduates are unemployable. From there you can build on for more broad based access to quality professional education. We need to fix places like BHU, Sagar university, Allahabad university, etc first.

  5. The reason I believe privately owned universities would do better in India is because of the following reasons
    a) Better salaries for professors => world class faculty members would be ready to teach and do research in these univs. Although, I'm not sure abt the latest difference in professor's salaries between public and private univs in India after the 6th pay commission report. But I'm sure there is still a gap there that needs to be bridged. In fact, I'm not sure if such a gap exists in the US. The competition between private and public univs is so intense here that public univs cant afford to risk losing their faculty members. Until public univs in India reach that level, we need private univs.
    b) More autonomy: I agree that this point doesnt make sense for the 40 odd colleges in Indore that are under the bureaucratic thumb of RGPV. But if we were to come up with 10 private universities with deemed univ status, they would not have to worry about being answerable to petty clerks sitting in useless univs like RGPV.

    I have a point in mind about the reason why IITs have been successful in spite of being publicly owned as compared to contemporary private univs like BITS and Manipal. Will save that for later.

    I think what we agree on is that there are certain ingredients required to brew a world class univ - really smart faculty members and researchers, cutting edge research infrastructure and an administration that is driven to take the univ at the top by by giving the faculty members and students just the right amount of freedom and also by doing aggressive publicity in industry. (might have missed out on 1-2 other ingredients) The point is, whichever environment (public/private) is able to provide these ingredients together will be able to boast of world class institutions.

  6. @Preshit: While I appreciate your line of thought and can see how Privatisation can help, there are certain issues, perhaps specific to the Indian context which I would like to point out.

    A. There is a distinction between Private universities which are run by charitable trusts, with education and research as an end in themselves and those that are set up as a business. For e.g. you have BITS on one end of the spectrum and Arindam Chowdhary's IIPM on the other. Both are private, both provide (or claim to provide) higher education. Unfortunately, based upon anecdotal evidence and media reports, most of the institutions in India seem of the latter variety.

    B. I agree with all the ingredients you list out for creating quality institutions, however am sceptical about how one would go about it. For e.g. If a well meaning philanthrophist merely throws money at a university and upgrades the facilities and hires staff overnight, would that really be a change which will sustain itself, and more importantly can it be adopted as a mass model?

    Any educational institute in order to remain autonomous would require a corpus. (Or charge insanely high fees, which would not work as a large scale model for India). The corpus can either come from the government or from the pvt sector where industry sees an advantage in investing in basic R&D.