[Burning Issue] Institute of Excellence Debate

Why in news?

  1. The Government has shortlisted Six Institutions of Eminence (IoEs)  including 3 from Public Sector and 3 from Private Sector
  2. It is expected that the above-selected Institutions will come up in the top 500 of the world ranking in 10 years and in top 100 of the world ranking eventually overtime
  3. Each public Institution selected as ‘Institution of Eminence’ will get financial assistance up to Rs. 1000 Crore over the period of five years under this scheme

What will be the benefit of this decision to institutes?

  1. It will ensure complete autonomy to the selected institutions and facilitate them to grow more rapidly
  2. They will get more opportunity to scale up their operations with more skills and quality improvement so that they become World Class Institutions in the field of education
  3. To achieve the top world ranking, these Institutions shall be provided with:
  • Greater autonomy to admit foreign students up to 30% of admitted students
  • To recruit foreign faculty up to 25% of faculty strength; to offer online courses up to 20% of its programmes
  • To enter into academic collaboration with top 500 in the world ranking Institutions without permission of UGC
  • Free to fix and charge fees from foreign students without restriction
  • The flexibility of course structure in terms of number of credit hours and years to take a degree
  • Complete flexibility in fixing of curriculum and syllabus

The significance of this step

  • IoEs will have unprecedented freedom to fund activities and customise courses, bringing creativity to higher education
  • It will support infrastructure and research in leading institutions to help them achieve international rankings
  • Under this initiative, there is recognition that education and research require strong collaborative environments with other institutions and people of diverse nationalities, cultures and ideas.

Criticism/Challenges

1. Less public universities selected:

  • The committee tasked with recommending Institutes of Eminence (IoE) wanted eight public universities and three private ones to get the tag.
  • This was from a total of 114 universities that applied for the IoE status and scrutinised by a four-member committee.
  • These universities included 74 public, 29 private (brownfield) and 11 private (green field) universities. However, the government mysteriously sanctioned only three public universities.
  • The deserving public ones that missed out are IIT Madras, IIT Kharagpur, Delhi University, Jadavpur University and Anna University

2. Many deserving Private universities not selected:

  • The deserving private greenfield university applicants that did not make the cut include ISB (Hyderabad), KREA (Raghuram Rajan) and Vedanta. The deserving private universities that did not make the cut include Ashoka University and Amrita University.

3. Very meagre allocation of funds:

  • The government will give Rs 1,000 crore over five years to each of the three selected public universities.
  • That is a budgetary outlay of Rs 600 crores per year for all the pomp and show. The top 10 universities in the world spend annually an average of Rs 5,800 crore each on research alone.
  • The total endowment funds of top 10 universities on an average should be Rs 1,24,000 crore each

4. The impact on the majority of Universities would be minimal:

  • India currently has approximately 800 universities, 39,000 colleges and 12,000 standalone institutions and over 34 million young Indians join higher education annually. Given the sheer size and scale of the Indian higher education system, the direct benefits that may accrue from implementing this proposal are likely to be minimal.

5. Complexities of International rankings:

  • The idea of using global rankings for assessing universities has drawn some well-justified criticism before. What does a focus on rankings mean for education? Such rankings tend to prioritise impact of publications over the quality of research programs, the latter being equally, if not more, important for advancing knowledge.
  • Further, these metrics only speak to individual publications and not the evaluation of research programs or their impact on the communities that they seek to serve.
  • In nations such as India, where there is a need for research that addresses society, the usability and impact of applied research becomes important, which is one of the goals of creating IoE. This calls for newer, more holistic approaches to assessment of research quality

Way Forward

With the focus trained just on 6 institutes in this particular proposal, several hundreds of government universities where tens of millions of India’s youth study are being laid to waste by excessive regulation, lack of  leadership, shortage of teaching staff, inadequate funding, lack of infrastructure and maladministration, especially in smaller cities and towns. This ‘bullet-train’ type solution applied to the education field isn’t necessarily bad, but the lack of transparency seems to only benefit a minuscule proportion of the population in more than one way.

In light of the importance and urgency of transforming India’s higher education system, lessons from around the world, it is clear that there is a better way forward for the nation.

Following steps are required

  1. To unshackle the higher education system quickly and at scale: integrate the regulatory agencies to create a single-window for establishing new universities, eliminate unnecessary functions of these agencies, and realign their responsibilities.
  2. To spur hundreds of universities and thousands of colleges to improve their level of excellence: give all higher education institutions complete autonomy. Let them all compete and get better. In tandem with increased transparency and accountability on outcomes, all the stakeholders—students, industry, society and nation—will benefit.
  3. Encourage 40-50 philanthropists to establish world-class universities: removing the regulatory hurdles for all at the outset, and letting them earn their eminent status from stakeholders, just like Stanford and all world-class universities have done, is far more effective and equitable.
  4. Create a new agency that provides research funding on merit to faculty members in both public and private universities. This is a well-accepted practice around the world. Peer-reviewed by experts in respective fields, the increased research funding will spur competition between faculty members and institutions, catalyze India’s research and innovation ecosystem, and accelerate solving the nation’s grand challenges.

Conclusion

It is time to unshackle India’s higher education system from the British Raj rules, regulations, and mindset. With a tsunami-scale wave of youth at the gates of higher education, India cannot afford to transform the system six Institutes of Eminence at a time. It is time to make urgent and comprehensive reforms. Now.

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