Thursday, May 22, 2008

Building Global Universities in India

C. Raj Kumar's op-ed today in the Hindu sings all the right notes. In fact, we have seen articles along similar lines in other newspapers as well. Though most 'experts' seem to hold concurrent notions, we have not seen these beliefs actually translating into any real change in the higher education system. The reason is that it fails to take into account the harsh but nevertheless fundamental realities of this sector.

What this and other articles do not tell you is that while universities may be dedicated to teaching and research and their admission policies emphasize diversity, they are pretty much run like a business, not a social good. The author mentions Harvard, Yale, MIT and others as the world's leading universities. Absolutely correct. The question is how they have managed to achieve that status. Answer: All of them have built up huge endowment funds - the last I heard, Harvard had $35 billion, Yale had $22 billion (growing faster than Harvard though), Columbia upwards of $4 billion its kitty and so on. They have hedge fund managers who take care of this money and ensure a substantial return year after year. That money goes into much of the expenditure that the university incurs including maintenance, new ventures, scholarships. etc. In a country like India without much of a philanthropic culture, can anyone seriously expect any university to come up with kind of dough? This is particularly relevant in light of the National Knowledge Commission Report's assertion that philanthropy in India has in fact declined since 1950 - if this is indeed true, it suggests sadly that prosperity has also bred parsimony. This is not to blame Raj Kumar but something for everyone who wants to improve Indian education to think about.

The next and obvious question is if private charity is not an option, what is. Virtually every article in the Hindu mentions the state's responsibility to provide quality education at an affordable rate. The state is in fact trying to do just that. New IITs are being opened, RECs are being upgraded to IITs, new medical institutes on par with AIIMS are being planned in other parts of the country, research institutes akin to the IISc are being considered for other state capitals as well. All of this is progress. However, as Raj Kumar points out, none of these existing so-called premier institutes are to be found even in the top 100. So is it right to look up to them as standard bearers for the rest? The government of course will give the politically correct answer that while existing institutions are being given funds to upgrade, this will not come in the way of new institutions being opened in other areas. This claim of course does not deny the fact that financial allocations always involves choices and it is possible, indeed essential, to ask whether the funds for new institutions could not have been better utilized for expanding existing ones. I read recently that this is precisely what China is doing. Rather than spread the money around, they are trying to build up a relatively small number of around 15 universities to world class standards. Policy makers in India have however found it expedient to build isolated colleges and institutes in different parts of the country rather than collective entities which would be better suited to qualify as full-fledged universities. The focus on new national institutes has also sapped the initiative to improve the 140 universities across the country that cater to the bulk of the student population.

So, if all of this money were to go into creating a few oases of excellence, would they be comparable to the world's greatest? Maybe not right away but we would definitely make major strides towards that goal. As is obvious however, that quality comes at the cost of quantity. A much lower number of students will be able to gain admission into them than the current government strategy allows. Is that acceptable to the public, political parties and parliament? That is a hard question that needs to be asked.

As Raj Kumar points out, private participation is a necessity given the limitations of governmental capacity in meeting the needs of higher education. 'But the expansion of this role ought to be based on the commitment of private universities and centres of learning to promote excellence in education', he says. A laudable idea but the trouble is that such a goal often conflicts with the more vital problem for any private entity - being able to earn enough to make the exercise remunerative. This is true of the West as much as India. Harvard provides additional points for applicants related to their alumni because the alumni provide a substantial contribution to the university. The cost of professional education which is not subsidized for the most part (except perhaps for the exceptionally talented few) - medicine, law and the like at such a fancy place can be exorbitant. Children of big donors, celebrities and powerful people secure admission without much hassle (I doubt George Bush got into Yale solely on the basis of his merit). Though solutions may differ, the problem is very much the same in India - money. Whoever pays may not call the shots but they definitely get something more than the rest for their contribution. That is exactly the same principle that applies in the capitation fee system that our home grown private colleges followed until recently. In the absence of governmental or charity support of any kind, they naturally look to students as the primary source of revenue. In a situation where demand outstrips supply, it is not surprising that they reap a bonanza come admission time every year.

So how does one get the private sector to promote excellence in education? One thing that has already been suggested is FDI and a bill was drawn up by the HRD ministry but continuing controversy appears to have stalled further progress. The Left for reasons that are clear only to itself opposed it saying it will promote 'elitism' (since elitism is all about the excellence of the few, is the Left championing medicrity?). The other answer of course is attractive funding opportunities for research. These may be from the government or from private organizations including foreign ones (the Gates foundation is promoting research for new drugs to treat TB and Malaria for example). Industries of all hues from software to pharmaceuticals can fund some research though basic science of the sort carried on in academia is not usually able to sustain itself merely with private support. Because such research usually carries long gestation periods before it yields any benefits realized through application (if at all), industry usually hesitates to pay for it. So the government would have to offer funding to private research initiatives as well on par with government ones. And the extent of 'excellence in education' will be largely dependent on the strength of funding sources that emerge.

One thing is however for sure. State regulation of private colleges is not the answer. Institutions cannot be forced to create excellence by fiat. The process has to emerge through institutional change that responds to various market forces. The quality of academic scholarship will ultimately be determined by the healthy competition amongst such institutions.

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