Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The quality of India's higher education by Ramesh Thakur

The quality of India's higher education by Ramesh Thakur
in The Hindu, Saturday, Dec 09, 2006.

The higher education and research sector is over-regulated and under-funded. It has been falling steadily behind the world average.

OBSERVING THE world of higher education from my unique vantage point, I have become increasingly concerned at India's neglect of what may well be the most precious asset for survival and advancement in a borderless knowledge society. I had the opportunity to attend an international seminar from December 4 to 6 at Tsinghua University in Beijing, one of China's premier universities, and the pleasure of a lunch with China's Deputy Minister of Education.

China has recognised the crucial importance of creating and retaining a critical mass of high quality scholars and research institutions, adequately funded and resourced to be able to compete with the world's best. It is making a concerted effort to entice the best of its overseas researchers back by offering them exciting work conditions and the guaranteed right of exit and re-entry so they can keep up their scholarly connections with the world's best universities. Another telling difference: universities like Tsinghua are encouraged to establish international advisory boards. I serve on a dozen or so international advisory boards in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America: but not one in India.

Although there are still a few pockets of excellence, the average quality of India's higher education has been falling steadily behind the world average. We may be outsourcing our brains, but we are far from educating them to maximum potential. There is something rotten in the state of higher education and research when overseas Indians can hold almost 30,000 patents for every one held by an Indian. India's higher education and research sector is over-regulated and under-funded, with professors being burdened with excessive student numbers and teaching to the neglect of quality original research. Tsinghua has 4,600 faculty for 26,500 students, including 5,000 PhD candidates.

Most Westerners are frankly disbelieving when told that vice chancellors are appointed by the government. How many bright Indian undergraduates aim for the higher education sector as their profession of choice as opposed to last resort, after the civil services, private sector, journalism, etc.

Ideas matter. They impart vitality to a society. Universities are the marketplace of ideas. In the short term, groups may vanquish rivals through superior skills in warfare. The long-term success of civilisations and countries is due more often to the dynamism and vibrancy of ideas and their steady ascendancy over competing visions of the good life. A society in intellectual ferment is fertile ground for progress and advancement, provided the clash of ideas is given free play. Conversely, a society that is bereft of, and represses, new ideas is a society doomed to stagnation. Education and scholarship provide the terrain on which intellectually arid and stagnant societies encounter new worlds of ideas from foreign cultures.

The process of transformation of large and complex societies creates social ferment, disorder, dislocation, volatility, and sometimes even conflict. The comments apply to international society as well. Universities are often under siege precisely because they are at the forefront of this struggle for social and economic transformation.

A university, as a repository of scholarship, is dedicated to teaching and research in the spirit of free and critical inquiry, tolerance of diversity, and a commitment to resolution of difference of opinion through dialogue and debate. That is, to the acquisition, criticism, and transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next and to being a centre of creative and innovative learning.

University qualifications are the gateway to social mobility in an increasingly meritocratic-technocratic society. The concomitant emphases on equitable and affordable access to quality education for all social classes and groups produced an explosion in the number of tertiary students.

In an information society and world, the comparative advantage of the higher education sector lies in its identity as the custodian and manager of knowledge-based networks that give it a global mandate and reach. Owing to changes in the higher education sector and under the impact of globalisation, universities across the world are being forced to change from bureaucratic and risk-averse to agile and market-responsive institutions. They used to be hierarchical, governed by religious rules, subject to religious authority, and interested very largely in religious scholarship amidst an essentially feudal society. Buffeted by broader social changes, universities too have been transformed through:
Secularisation (of what is taught and how it is taught);
Democratisation (of access) and resulting expansion;
Consequences of expansion for maintaining balance between supply and demand, access and quality, resources and activities, teaching and research commitments (time, funds);
Internationalisation (of students, staff, curricula, campuses, best practice benchmarks, funding opportunities-cum-competition, etc);
`Commodification' — education as a for-profit activity and service export;
Changing student profile — where previously education and employment came together in the ideal of a career, today it is becoming commonplace to think of multiple careers and periodic upskilling, leading to demand for lifelong learning opportunities and modules;
Knowledge intensity — the amount of knowledge per graduating student has increased dramatically from one generation to the next;
Technology intensity in the acquisition and transmission of existing knowledge and creation of new knowledge; and
The declining relevance of distance in the provision and generation of knowledge.

There is unlikely to be any significant lessening of the pace and scale of changes in the university sector in the foreseeable future. The practical management import is the premium this places on innovation, creativity, flexibility, and entrepreneurship. All this may, in turn, suggest new mix-and-match modes of governance, operation, financing, internal structures, external relations, etc.

A related challenge is to maintain international competitiveness. While India has been faring remarkably well in the global economic market, Indian universities are falling behind in the global marketplace of ideas. This is true even of the sciences; it is embarrassingly true of the arts and social sciences. I have been witness to this anecdotally over the past decade at seminars, conferences and discussions by the editorial boards of professional academic journals. The impressionistic conclusion is confirmed in the latest compilation of the world's top 200 universities (see Table).

Moreover, India lags not just on global but also on Asian benchmarks. China in particular has made conscious efforts to upgrade its elite institutions to world class centres of excellence. It is impressive to find Beijing ranked 14th in the world and Tsinghua 28th. The first Indian universities to appear on the list are the IITs, at number 57, followed by the IIMs at number 68. There are nine Asian universities outside of China, Hong Kong, and Japan in the top 200, compared to a meagre three Indian. The Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, just squeaks in joint 183rd, while its equivalent Australian counterpart, the Australian National University (where I used to be a professor), ranks 16th. Prior to ANU, I was a professor at Otago University in New Zealand. Few Indians, even among academics, are likely to know of it, yet it ranks 79th in the world: more than twice as high as JNU.

Globalisation creates winners and losers in education as in trade, investment, and economic growth. Talent is in great demand in the global marketplace. Where appropriate structures of incentives have been put in place to reward talent and enterprise through nimble market-responsive mechanisms, universities are becoming a major source of service exports.

Countries where they are both overly regulated and undervalued in social status and economic incentives (for example promotions based primarily on seniority of service), as in India, are the source rather than destination for internationally mobile students. Indian students in their tens of thousands are flooding American, Australian, British, and Canadian universities, paying huge fees that could otherwise fund significant upgrade of the quality of higher education back in India.

If we believe in a knowledge economy and society, then we must invest heavily in higher education as the pivot of modern-day knowledge management. Else we will be mere feeder stations in one-way educational traffic to international destinations. Education is expensive, the alternative much costlier.

(Ramesh Thakur is Senior Vice Rector of the United Nations University and Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations.)
We rarely see opinions on the state of universities in India. If one follows the Indian media one would be under the impression that all Indians go to IIT's and IIM's and that Indian education is world standard. We all have our issues with the education system that bred us, the above piece tries to say some of the things that I think over sometimes. India is supposed to be the next big thing after China, for some it is bigger in potential than China. India is a vast market, about 400 million middle class ready to be turned into mindless consumers for most in the coporate world. The Indian coporate world is flush with money. Indian coporations arrived on the global stage in 2006 when they took over firms in developed economies and yet we universities in India are financially arid. The past debates on governmental control over the IIT's and IIM's kicked off a major campaign in the national media and one astute observer, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, had this to say about the furore that Murli Manohar Joshi's efforts caused, that when the universities (Allahabad/ Aligarh Muslim University/Benaras Hindu University) were systematically killed in the 1970's and 1960's where was the outrage. The point not being to support the destruction of the success of the technological and Management institutes but rather that non-technical fields have an equal aspiration to success after all the history of ideas and the ideas of history are debated, discussed and thought out in the social laboratories that universities aspire to be. And as some of my corporate market sucker friends would say that things only need to exist if they are financially viable then let us first dispense with our cultural, historical and the pretending civilisational ethos that is constantly feted out to the world and which smacks of the arrogance of Indians being superior.


Roy said...

The piece gets it right on "overregulated and underfunded". I refer you to Devesh Kapur's work on Indian educational institutions.

You are conflating two distinct issues here - the viability of an institution and the neglect of liberal arts education.

There is by now enough global evidence to show that higher education institutions need to be financially viable to impart quality research and education. Besides, a financially viable college/university is likely to patronise the arts more vigorously than one which depends on government grants for various subjects.

Any institution that subsists on government handouts is not pulling its weight and deserves to be thrown off the boat. Decades of subsidies thrown at institutions and leftist nonsense cannot convince anyone that it's not a mess.

It's a non-market principle that defines this country - we just don't believe in paying for quality of public services. Money clears up a lot of foggy minds bred on loony caste,class and religious views of what one deserves and what one does not. ( A student paying Rs 200 for a BA in Lukhnow University seems to me more inclined to do things such as what we see in the papers compared to say a student who pays Rs 2000 a month, earns a bursary for research and tops it up with a private grant.)

Liberal arts education gets less funding than technical and financial education, that's the case everywhere, not just in India. Internationally, universities work around this through cross subsidisation across the portfolio of courses they offer and tapping capital markets for funds. They also play on the snob value of such courses - the classics degree at Oxford is a case in point.

Personally I think that society needs to attain a certain level of prosperity to appreciate the value of a liberal arts education. Till then, it doesn't make sense as an investment to people who look upon a college education not as an end in itself but as a certificate to qualify for entrance examinations.

It's a scale-up of a situation where a farmer does not get why he should send his son to primary school to learn a few letters when he can employ him on a job and earn more money.

To sum: institutions must be financially viable and must be based on technocratic parameters - it's the only way to deliver quality and value for the student's investment.

Sadly, with our personal class/caste network-based worldview, we are going to take a long time to get anywhere near these standards.

Corporate Money-Sucker Friend

Abhigyan said...

To my mind, its a case of lopsided priorities..we paid more than 40 grands an annum in school, and then 2grands in college & post-grad (where we had to jhelo all of different kinds)...i wld rather have a more egalitarian schooling (makes me less class-conscious at an impressionable age), and then sweat it out for college at market rates..like in the States, the scholarship can be a function of merit and economic background (i am sure India will have caste thing also)..and then these higher instituions can function in a market-place sort of thing..apart from IITs & IIMs which were relative flukes, all new decent institues are from the pvt sector (like ISB & MICA hehe)...
America follows the same model, while socialist Europe (like us) is losing out..