Taxishila, Nalanda.....where are you?

India has the largest number of universities in the world at 8600?? And is the nation which was the very first to establish universities at several locations thousands of years back (The higher study of several disciplines under one roof, with the guidance of well versed teachers). India has the highest number of enrolled higher education students in the world??? 18 million.

India has many many words for the seeker/imparting of true knowledge or teacher........The Indian nation in the broadest sense has always prized the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, from swamis, sadhus, yogis, Pandits, Gurus, Maharishis, Sanyasins and Brahmans.

But alas, such impressive statistics mean very little, in the modern shoddy post colonial, Macauley Brown Sahib run India.

The preset government would like to spend maybe 6% of GDP on education in the near future, which I think is an excellent aspiration. There is a clear linkage between a well educated population and economic growth. Guess what the most prosperous, stable and successful nations on earth also happen to be the most educated in the broadest sense....what a surprise. However obviously its not about throwing a greater % of India's wealth towards education generally, but taking a clear strategic look at where the money really needs to be spent. Dare I say it, as the article rightly suggests specific investment needs to be made to create quality education institutions, even if they don't serve the masses. An Ivy league of colleges and universities, which are very well financed. The government can take the initiative on its own, or where individual projects merit embark on joint ventures with the private sector.


Quality over quantity


The QS ranking of world universities was released recently. Like all such rankings, this one too has many critics who question its methodology and hence the accuracy of its ranking. But Indian universities and educational institutions fare far too badly for this to be attributed to faulty methodology. The highest-ranked Indian institution is IIT, Mumbai, with a rank of 187 in the world. What is perhaps more disheartening is that 35 other Asian institutions have been ranked above it. Clearly, we are falling far behind even countries like South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia and, of course, China and Japan in higher education.

Why should we care whether we have a world-class university when we do not have enough primary schools and inadequate healthcare facilities? This may well be the reaction of large numbers of Indians, who view top-quality higher educational institutions as a luxury good that cannot be afforded by developing countries. Unfortunately, this is an extremely myopic view. The absence of Harvards and Cambridges in India has resulted in gigantic outflows of the best Indian students leaving the country to study abroad. In fact, sometimes i feel that i hear more students speaking in Hindi in the University of Warwick campus than, for instance, in the Delhi School of Economics!

This migration would not have mattered if it had been temporary. It is not an overwhelming fraction of Indians who go abroad to study do not return to India. The sheer magnitude of the brain drain from India is mind-boggling. India does benefit from their presence abroad through remittances and goodwill earned overseas. But we suffer a far bigger loss because the direct benefits of their skills as managers, doctors, innovators and researchers accrue to the countries where they reside.

The UPA government started its second innings with the promise to build several world-class universities. We have not yet been told how it intends to keep its promise although half its term is over. Perhaps, the government believes that all it has to do is construct some new buildings and the rest will follow. But what we actually need is a dramatically new approach.

The strategy followed so far in developing higher education in India has been to gradually increase the number of universities, all of them with roughly the same scale of facilities. This emphasis on quantity has had a deplorable effect on quality because resources have been spread too thinly. Even the most well-funded university or research institute in India receives no more than a fraction of the funds available to comparable institutions in several Asian countries.

Consider, for example, the salaries on offer in Indian universities. Despite the quite large increase in salaries after the last pay commission report, university salaries remain grossly inadequate compared to remunerations available elsewhere. A bright young researcher who, after finishing a PhD abroad, has just received an assistant professorship in any North American university would have to attach an exceedingly high premium to the intangible joys of working "back home" in order to actually return to India.

Is it surprising then that even leading universities and research institutes find it impossible to reverse the brain drain? Similarly, a comparison of salaries in the corporate world with those in academia explains why increasingly large numbers of bright students opt for a career in the private sector instead of entering academia.

Of course, salaries are just one component of what young researchers look for when they evaluate alternative job offers. Although the internet, skype and e-mail have made the world a smaller place, it is imperative for young academics to have generous research grants so as to be able to travel abroad to attend conferences and workshops, to collaborate with foreign co-authors. Experimental scientists need state-of-the art laboratories. Which Indian university offers these facilities?

So, the financial requirements of "world-class" universities are very large. This means that the only feasible option is to discard the current policy of uniformity same salary scale, same rules regarding travel grants, etc, across all universities. Instead, the government should build perhaps three or four universities with research facilities and salaries comparable to the best in Asia. Moreover, these universities must be truly autonomous institutions. And they must be completely free from the draconian formulaic regime imposed by the UGC in particular and the government in general. For example, imagine that Harvard wants to hire an outstanding young academic as an associate professor, but is unable to do so because the person has not completed eight years after his PhD!

Ideally, these universities should have both undergraduate and graduate programmes. Moreover, the size of the undergraduate programme should be sufficiently small so that the entire teaching is done by the graduate faculty instead of being farmed out to affiliated colleges. This practice, which has also been advocated by the vice-chancellor of Delhi University in a recent newspaper article, will improve the quality of undergraduate teaching dramatically.

Of course, this will mean inequality in the education sector both in terms of the quality of teaching available to students as well as the remuneration package available to faculty. This will inevitably attract the charge of elitism. Unfortunately, this is the additional price which has to be paid for setting up world-class universities!

The writer is professor, University of Warwick.