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Can India build 20 Harvards in 20 years?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 31-05-2017 Livemint

Higher education in India is in deep crisis. Most Indian graduates are unemployable. Research in both the sciences and the humanities is generally below par. And even elite Indian universities do not make it to the very top of global listings.

The Narendra Modi government is seeking to change the situation by establishing 20 world-class “institutions of eminence” around the country. The government wants these institutions to be free of regulatory shackles and requires them to be globally competitive. If these institutions develop and deliver on these lines, eventually driving innovation and economic growth, they could potentially mark the beginning of a new chapter in India’s nation-building exercise. If not, they will be the missed opportunity that sets back India’s aspirations to be a great power.

Global leadership has been linked historically to leadership in ideas, especially in science and technology. Think of 19th century England or of the US in the 20th century. Indeed, one may go so far as to say that establishing leadership in education is an important turning point for emerging nations moving towards great-power status.

China makes for a good example. Since the late 1990s, it has made a concerted effort to revamp its tertiary education sector and link it to state power, as detailed in its 10th and 11th five-year plans. China reorganized the sector by merging small institutions into larger universities, marking out elite institutions for generous state funding (the top 11 universities received more than $2.56 billion from the government in the first phase alone), and changed its focus from quantity-oriented deliverables such as enrolment numbers to quality-oriented deliverables such as citations in respected peer-reviewed journals.

The results began to show in less than a decade. By 2003, China’s share of Asian science and engineering articles had increased from 14.54% in 1998 to 22.43%; its number of undergraduate and graduate students had been growing at approximately 30% per year since 1999; and by 2008, it was already churning out the largest number of PhDs in the world, as scholars Yao Li, John Whalley, Shunming Zhang and Xiliang Zhao note in their 2008 working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, The Higher Educational Transformation Of China And Its Global Implications.

To be fair, there has been growth in India’s education sector too. Between 1950 and 2014, the number of universities has increased 34 times, from 20 to 677, while the number of colleges has increased 74 times, from 500 to 37,204, in about the same time, according to the Union ministry of human resource development. Unfortunately, a vast majority of these institutions are little more than rubber stamps on degree certificates that aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. There are many reasons for this but essentially they can be summed up as: an excess of regulation in the name of good governance. As the government sets up this new bunch of institutions, it will be interesting to see whether it addresses these fundamental structural problems that continue to hobble the Indian education sector.

Take, for instance, the manner in which scientific study has evolved in post-independence India—primarily in research institutions not linked to a university. This was because in the early years after independence, the government of the day made a conscious decision to keep research institutes separate from universities which were meant to focus only on teaching.

Indeed, there was a robust debate on this issue between Homi Bhabha and Meghnad Saha. The former pushed for stand-alone research institutes to which scarce resources could be directed in a targeted manner while the latter argued that scientific research centres should be housed within universities. Bhabha won the debate at the time, but today Saha seems to have been vindicated.

Even though a handful of India’s scientific research centres, such as the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, and the Indian Institute of Science have done good work, the universities have suffered considerably. As Priyamvada Natarajan of Yale University notes, “the separation of research from teaching... has robbed the undergraduate curriculum of its richness...and it has impoverished universities by offering very little incentive to its faculty for becoming scholars, producing a disenchanted generation of academics”.

In contrast, in the US today, research is integral to every university which serves as a hub of innovation and development. A commonly cited example of how research universities have incubated innovative ecosystems around them is that of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Similarly, across the world in Israel, Technion University was the catalyst that sparked the start-up nation.

In the long run though, it is important to mention that for any development in higher education to bear fruit, it will have to be supported by the strengthening of primary education. In fact, as Devesh Kapur at the University of Pennsylvania notes, “An important reason why Chinese higher education has galloped ahead of India is that it strengthened its primary and secondary education systems first, which India is only now attempting to achieve. Consequently, Indian higher education became a victim of distributional politics which China appears so far to have by and large avoided.”

Can the proposed ‘institutions of eminence’ reinvigorate higher education in India? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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