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India has no plan to upgrade education!
December 21, 2005
Until fifty years ago there were several world class universities in India: Allahabad, Bombay, Calcutta, and Delhi are names that come to mind. Some of the world's greatest scientists of the twentieth century, such S Ramanujan, Jagadis Chandra Bose, Satyendranath Bose, C V Raman, and Meghnad Saha, did their work in India. As thinkers, Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, and Sri Aurobindo were giants on the world scene.
Such excellence in science, thought and philosophy is no longer associated with Indian universities. Although there are exceptions, Indian professors are more known as spokesmen for one or other political ideology than for fearless inquiry. The centralized system of funding in the social sciences has encouraged conformity to the prevailing political winds.
A weak higher education system not only fails the students, it also is unable to assist society and the polity in analysis and the devising of new solutions, which are essential as India integrates into the world economy and requires legislation and administrative systems that are able to keep pace with rapidly changing technology.
Although there is much crowing that the IITs are world class -- and they are quite good as undergraduate colleges -- they fall quite short as research universities when measured by objective criteria. According to a highly regarded analysis of the world's best 500 universities and colleges, none of the Indian IITs or universities turned up in the top 300.
The best three Indian universities in this list are Indian Institute of Science in the range 301-400, and IIT Kharagpur and University of Calcutta in the range 401-500. Even in the Asia Pacific region, these three best Indian universities are laggards. Whereas China has 18 universities in the top 500, India has only 3.
China has embarked on an ambitious plan to upgrade its top ten universities to world class status; India has no similar plan. China has invested heavily in infrastructure, and its attempt to upgrade its universities is a part of this program. India's underfunded and misadministered universities are an extension of its underinvested infrastructure.
In spite of the reports to the contrary in Indian newspapers, China's education system is more comprehensive than India's, and it is better managed. At the school level also, China has done much better: its illiteracy rate is below 10%, whereas India's is closer to 30%.
India has some excellent undergraduate colleges, but the education they impart is narrow, and this will become an increasing weakness as India tries to compete at the higher end of the knowledge chain.
The statistics for a few chosen countries are in the Table below:
The universities were ranked by several indicators of academic or research performance that included alumni and staff winning major scientific prizes, highly cited researchers, articles published in prestigious journals, and articles indexed in major citation indices. The United States not only has 53 of the best 100 universities, it also has 17 of the best 20 (not shown in the Table).
Recent Indian industrialisation has favoured knowledge and service industry, and almost half of the largest global corporations do at least some of their back office work in India. Indian R&D centres of American technology firms are filing an impressive number of patents, and this year, there were more than 1,300 Indian applications for drug patents, second only to the US. For this trend to become firm, the strengthening of the university research centres is particularly important.
Indian universities are controlled by the government, and their situation is somewhat like that of the Indian industry before the reforms of 1991. The Education Raj has not only failed in the task of creating a first rate higher education system; it has led to the decline of formerly good universities. It is not that public funding for higher education does not work in other countries also, since the centrally administered systems of UK, Germany, and Japan are quite successful.
The University Grants Commission currently functions as regulator, inspector (through its agency NAAC, the National Assessment and Accreditation Council), and disburser of government grants. This centralisation of authority has created the ineffective Education Raj and, therefore, these three components must be separated.
The regulation should be done by professional associations, which are knowledgeable about their field, and the NAAC, which is currently very weak, should be made independent. The UGC should concentrate only on dispersal of funds. This model would be closer to the successful models of governance of public universities followed in the West.
Given that the government does not have the resources to fully fund a reformed UGC administering the higher education system in the entire country; sensible public policy demands a decentralized system in which private research universities play a significant role. The competition between private and public universities would be good for both.