In order to compete successfully in the knowledge based economy of 21st century, India needs enough universities that can support sophisticated research.
India is rushing towards the economic success and modernization, counting on high tech industries such as information technology and biotechnology to propel the nation to prosperity. India recently announced that it would no longer produce unlicensed inexpensive generic pharmaceuticals bowed to the realities of the world trade organization while at the same time challenging the domestic drug industry to compete with the multinational firms.
Unfortunately its weak higher education sector constitutes the Achilles Heel of this strategy. Its systematic disinvestment in the higher education in the recent years has yielded neither world class research nor vary may highly trained scholars,scientist or managers to sustain high tech development.
India one of the main competitors Singapore, Taiwan, south Korea especially china are investing large and differentiated higher education systems. They are providing access to large numbers of students at the bottom of the academic systems while at the same time building some research based universities that are able to compete with world's best institutions. The recent London Times Higher education Supplement ranking of the world's top 200 universities included three in china, three in Hong Kong, three in south Korea, one in Taiwan and one in India.These countries are positioning themselves for leadership positions in the knowledge based economics of the coming era.
There was a time when countries could achieve economic success with cheap labor and low tech manufacturing. Low wages still help, but the contemporary large scale development requires a sophiscate and at least partly knowledge based economy. India has chosen that path but will find a major stumbling block in its university system.
India has significant advantages in the 21st century knowledge race. It has a large higher education sector the third largest in the world in student numbers, after china and the United States. It uses English as a primary language of higher education and research. It has long academic tradition. There are a small number if high quality institutions departments and centers that can form the basis of quality sector in higher education. India educates approximately 10 percent of its young people in higher education compared with more than half in the major industrialized countries and 15 percent in China.
Almost all the world's academic systems resemble a pyramid with a small high quality tier at the top and a massive sector at the bottom.
India has tiny top tier. None of its universities occupies a solid position at the top .A few of the best universities have some excellent departments and centers and there is a small number of outstanding undergraduate colleges. The university grants commission’s recent major support of five universities to build on their recognized strength is a step towards recognizing a differentiated academic systems and fostering excellence.
At present, the world class institutions are mainly limited to the Indian institutes of technology (IITs), the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and perhaps a few others such as the All India Institute of Medical sciences and the Tata Institute of medical sciences and the Tata institute of fundamental research. These institutions combined enroll well under 1 percent of the student populations.
India's college and universities with just a few expectations have become large, under-funded, ungovernable institutions. At many of them politics has intruded into campus life, influencing academic appointments and decisions across levels. Under investment in libraries, information technology, laboratories and classrooms makes it very difficult to provide top quality instruction or engage in cutting edge research.
The rise in number of part time teachers and the freeze on new full time appointments in many places have affected morale in the academic profession. The lack of accountability means that teaching and research performance is seldom measured. The system provides few incentives to perform. Bureaucratic inertia hampers change.
Even the small top tier of higher education faces serious problems. Many IIT graduates well trained in technology have chosen not to contribute their skills to the burgeoning technology sector in India. Perhaps half leave the country immediately upon graduation to pursue advanced study abroad and most of the do not return. A stunning 86 percent of students in science and technology fields from India who obtain degrees in the United States do no return home immediately following their study. Another few percentage of the students decide to earn MBAs in India because local salaries are higher and are lost to science and technology. Few people in India think creatively about the higher education. There is no field of higher education research.
Those in government as well as academic leaders seem content to do the same old thing. Academic institutions and systems have become large and complex. They need good data, careful analysis and creative ideas. In China, more than two -dozen higher education research centers and several government agencies are involved in higher education policy.
India has survived with an increasingly mediocre higher education system for decades. Now as India strives to compete in a globalized economy in areas that require highly trained professionals, the quality of higher education becomes in a globalized economy in areas that require highly trained professionals, the quality of higher education becomes increasingly important. So far India's large educated population base and its reservoir of at least moderately well trained university graduates have permitted the country to move ahead. But the competition is fierce.
China in particular is heavily investing in improving its best universities with the aim of making a small group world class in the coming decade and making a larger number internationally competitive research universities.
Other Asian countries are also upgrading higher education with the aim of building world class universities.
Taiwan, being the major designer and producer of IT hardware, is considering merging several of its top technological universities to create an "Asian MIT".
To compete successfully in the knowledge based economy of the 21st centaury India needs enough universities that not only produce bright graduates for export but can also support sophisticated research in a number of scientific and scholarly fields and produce at least some of the knowledge and technology needed for an expanding economy. How can India build a higher education system that will permit it to join developed economics? The newly emerging private sector in higher education cannot spearhead academic growth.
Several of the well endowed and effectively managed private institutions maintain reasonably high standards although it is not clear that these institutions will be able to sustain themselves in the long run. They can help produce well qualified graduates in such fields as management, but they cannot form the basis for comprehensive research in the sciences. Nor can enough money be earned by providing instructions in the mainstream arts and sciences disciplines. Most of the private institutions do not focus on advanced training in the sciences.
Only public universities have the potential to be truly world class institutions. Institutions and programmes of national prominence. But these institutions have not been adequately or consistently supported. The top institutions require sustained funding from the public sources. Academic salaries must be high enough to attract excellent scientist and scholars. Fellowships and other grants should be available for bright students. An academic culture that is based on merit based norms and competitions for advancement and research funds is a necessary component as is a judicious mix of autonomy to do creative research and accountability to ensure productivity. World class universities require world class professors and students and a culture to sustain and stimulate them.
A clearly differentiated academic system has not been created in India -a system where are some clearly identified institutions that receive significantly greater resources than other universities. One of them reasons that the University of California at Berkeley is so good is that other California universities receive much less support. India’s best universities require sustained state support they require the recognitions that they are indeed top institutions and deserve commensurate and an ethos of an academic meritocracy. At present the structures are not in place to permit building and sustaining top quality programmes even if resources are provided.
A combination of specific conditions and resources are needed to create outstanding universities. Sustained financial support with an appropriate mix of accountability and autonomy.
The development of a clearly differentiated academic systems-including private institutions-in which academic institutions have different missions, resources and purposes.
Managerial reforms and the introduction of effective administrations truly merit based hiring and promotion policies for the academic profession and similarly regious and honest recruitment, selection and instructions of students.
Truly merit based hiring and promotion policies for the academic profession and similarly rigorous and honest recruitment, selections and instructions of the students.
India cannot build internationally recognized research orientated universities overnight, but the country has the key elements in place to begin and sustain the process. India will need to create a dozen or more universities that can compete internationally to fully participate in the new world economy. Without these universities, India is destined to remain a scientific backwater.