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  • Shail Kumar

Open Letter to HRD Minister Javadekar: “Policy on Establishment of World Class Institutions”

Dear Minister Javadekar,

You hold the keys to India’s future. In the next 35-50 years 700 million to 1.3 billion youth in India could potentially go through the higher education system. Preparing these young men and women for their lives and careers is the defining challenge and opportunity for India in the 21st century.

We thank you for the opportunity to share inputs on the “Policy on Establishment of World Class Institutions”. I am sharing ideas and suggestions based on over 30 years of engagement with India’s higher education system as an IIT Kharagpur student and alumni leader, and administrator at UC Berkeley and UC San Diego. I am also the author of a recently published book on India and its higher education system, and Founder and President of Nalanda 2.0, a nonprofit and nonpartisan group committed to the public interest.

After nearly 70 years of independence, India does not have one world-class multidisciplinary research university, and just one university, the Indian Institute of Science Bangalore, is ranked in the top 500 globally. India must establish 40-100 world-class multidisciplinary research universities immediately. This means building 20-50 new ones, transforming 20-50 existing universities to world-class levels, and also stopping some outdated practices.

Establish 20–50 new world-class multidisciplinary research universities in the next 10 years.

Establishing 20-50 new National Universities of India (NUIs) will build critical scale and excellence at the highest levels. NUI alumni who become faculty members and teachers will raise the quality of teaching and research in colleges and universities around the country and quality of teaching in primary and secondary schools.

NUIs must be multidisciplinary and include all fields—arts and humanities, architecture and city planning, biological sciences, business, education, engineering, law, mathematical sciences, medical sciences, nursing, physical sciences, public health, public policy, and social sciences—all co-located in one campus. Further, NUIs must excel in research, innovation, and education. They must make an impact on the local community, state, region, and nation. They must also foster interdisciplinary thinking, dialogue, and research. As the primary doctorate-granting institutions, they would be expected to prepare the next generation of faculty members for colleges and universities. Finally, these NUIs must have a capacity of 30,000-50,000 students per campus.

Spread across the country, the NUIs must also serve as state and regional hubs for excellence in research and innovation, education, and entrepreneurship. NUIs would be expected to set the standard for excellence in the country and be in the top echelons of global rankings within 10-15 years of their founding.

Transform 20–50 existing institutions of excellence, such as IITs, IIMs, and AIIMS, to NUI status.

For India’s scale and growing aspirations of its youth, we need over one hundred world-class research universities. Some of the existing colleges and universities must transform and could become multidisciplinary and world-class. However, the NUI status must be earned based on demonstrated excellence in research, education, innovation, and entrepreneurship. All existing institutions, whether government or private, must be allowed to compete for research funding. Research funding must be awarded based on excellence in research and education of its faculty members and the merits and relevance of the research proposal. These institutions would also be expected to have the same standards of excellence, structure, scope, and impact as the new NUIs.

Immediately stop establishing new single field institutions, such as IIT, IIM, AIIMS, IISER, NIT, IIIT, NISER, IIPH, ISI, NIFT, NID, Nursing and Teacher Training Institutes.

Single field institutions are ineffective and inefficient. They cannot compete in today’s world, and they do not have the economies of scale or scope. This model may have worked well for the imperial British with its “divide and conquer” strategy or in our early post-independent years. However, they make no sense in the new knowledge-based society that favors holistic and interdisciplinary learning. Thus, India’s single discipline model is ineffective in today’s world and for the future.

They are also an inefficient use of human, financial, and land resources. Each institution needs a seasoned academic and administrative leadership team. They also need land, buildings, and research infrastructure. Currently, these precious resources are being spread across hundreds of institutions. The current crisis of leadership in IITs and various universities are a glaring example of the lack of adequate academic and administrative leaders that is plaguing the country. By establishing new NUIs, transforming some of the existing institutions into NUIs, and putting a stop on further growth of balkanized institutions, we have a good chance of having outstanding leadership across all levels in our colleges and universities.

Most of the current single discipline focused institutions hire faculty in noncore disciplines. For example, each IIT has a small group of faculty who teach economics, psychology, business, English, and some foreign languages. IIMs recruit faculty members that have expertise in manufacturing, information technology, and additional technical areas. The single discipline specialization causes two key issues. One, faculty resources are being duplicated. Two, with no critical mass of faculty members in noncore fields, the institutions are unable to recruit and retain the best in that field.

For example, arts, humanities, and social sciences faculty may prefer to teach at a more traditional university or liberal arts–focused institution such as St. Stephen’s College or SRCC rather than at an IIT or IIM. Similarly, a faculty member in business would prefer to teach at IIM or XLRI rather than at IIT, SRCC, or St. Stephen’s. And a math or science faculty would rather join IISc, IISER, or IIT rather than any other institution. At an NUI, these precious faculty resources would be better deployed and there would be a critical mass of outstanding faculty members in all the disciplines in one co-located campus. And faculty member in every field and discipline would be a core faculty member of the university.

Many fields need research infrastructure, which currently cannot be shared by faculty members from other fields. Thus, human, financial, and physical resources again have to be duplicated. For example, IITs, AIIMS, and the DBT and CSIR labs may be purchasing the same expensive biomedical research equipment. Each of these labs will need competent technical staff, lab space, maintenance, and supplies. At an NUI, science, engineering, and medical faculty members could use shared resources, not just the equipment but also trained scientific staff. With large-scale projects, the NUI may be able to purchase more equipment and supplies more frequently and have more negotiating leverage with the suppliers and get a better price. Thus, NUIs will have economies of scale and increased opportunities for interdisciplinary research

I have repeatedly written and argued that higher education system is the nerve center of a society and nation, India’s higher education system is in crisis, and India needs a Gray Revolution—urgent and comprehensive reforms. The following five additional ideas can make India’s higher education institutions truly world-class.

First, appoint a leader and a team with credibility and insights of building and running world-class universities as the focal point for this initiative. This also means removing University Grants Commission (UGC) from the driver seat of chairing and managing the process and the various selection and approval committees. Those who got the higher education system in the current mess cannot be trusted to transform it. The policy document itself recognizes UGC’s failure, when it notes, “The above initiative is the beginning of our journey to restore the original mandate of higher education regulators, as facilitators and guides, driven by norms of self-disclosure and transparency, instead of top-down command and control and micromanagement, in the quest to achieve world-class standards in all colleges and universities.

Nandan Nilekani’s led Aadhaar initiative is the most recent and visible example of successful nation-wide government initiative. Nilekani brought instant credibility, insights, and a network of the good. He and his team also demonstrated what a small group of dedicated, smart, and hardworking people with domain expertise can accomplish in a relatively short time. The Government would do well to replicate this model for the world-class universities initiative as well.

Second, create a transparent merit-based criterion to select these institutions. The policy document states its intent of creating 10 public and 10 private universities as world-class. It smells fishy. If the intent is to accelerate establishment of world-class institutions then the most effective and efficient strategy is to focus on the current premier institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), Indian Institute of Sciences (IISc), and All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and transform them to world-class multidisciplinary research universities. They have a much better reputation, infrastructure, and resources than most other institutions. In addition, most of the top 10 colleges across most of the disciplines are public institutions. Is the focus on 10 private institutions an outcome of big business lobbying? Otherwise, why not have 15 public and 5 private world-class institutions, or 16-4? It would be best to establish a transparent merit-based criterion to select these institutions and not be fixated on an arbitrary goal of 10 public-10 private world-class institutions.

Third, attract the best and the brightest talent to be faculty members in colleges and universities by instituting market-based compensation, and merit-based incentives and accountability system. “All of these schools [two-thirds of the best US universities] correctly assume that the quality of the faculty is the most important factor in maintaining their reputation and position,” wrote Henry Rosovsky, former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and briefly acting president of Harvard University, in his book The University: An Owner’s Manual. Stanford University’s transformation from a regional university in the early 1940s to among the top five in the world can be attributed to its commitment to attracting the best the brightest talent from around the world to its faculty. The policy document misses this point completely, except to say the institutions “should have a good proportion of foreign or foreign qualified faculty.

Fourth, leverage Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), technology, and innovations to scale with speed and excellence. MOOCs are a relatively new innovation but one that offers India an opportunity to leapfrog, much like wireless technologies did for communications and commerce. Currently Swayam, India’s MOOCs initiative, boasts of 93 undergraduate and 83 post-graduate program choices. At one level this is a wonderful start, but this needs to be put on a super-charger and scaled quickly! The policy document is regressive and arbitrarily restricts distance education to “not more than 30% of the program should be in online mode.” If India is creating world-class institutions, then this is the time to leverage the highest standards in teaching and learning and make it available to rest of the country, without restrictions.

Finally, if MHRD has accepted that India needs a new regulatory environment that enables establishment of the world-class institutions then why limit the framework for just twenty institutions? Let thousands of colleges and universities benefit from a more enabling regulatory environment. There are 20-26 million children born each year. If India is to be ready for this tsunami-scale wave of tens of millions of people, then it has to transform its higher education system.

Thus, this is a time to scale with speed and excellence. These five time-tested ideas from around the world can put India’s higher education system on the right trajectory. Ben Wildavsky, author of The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World, notes “One final distinguishing feature of NUS’s (National University of Singapore) rise to excellence is that it has cultivated a meritocratic culture, backed by resources and freed from bureaucratic hiring constraints…” India would do well to learn from the US, China, South Korea, Singapore, and nations who have established a world-class higher education system.

If India can send an orbiter to Mars, build nuclear weapons, and conduct surgical strikes, and its people can win Nobel Prizes and lead Fortune 500 companies, it can surely build a world-class higher education system.

When it does, India would have realized the dreams of its freedom fighters such as Gandhi, Ambedkar, Bose, Naidu, Nehru, Patel, Tagore, and Tilak. The country and the countryside will be prosperous, people will be healthy, environment and economy will be vibrant, and the society and the nation will be peaceful and united. “Where the mind will be without fear…” Values such as excellence, merit, and honesty and integrity will be valued and rewarded. Industry-university collaborations will be robust. Research, innovation, and entrepreneurial eco-system will be vibrant. The best and the brightest talent will be teachers and faculty members in schools and universities. And, most importantly, the India will be Golden not just for a few but for all its people.

You will also go down in history as the leader who used the key to unleash the potential of 1.3 billion people and usher in India’s new Golden age.

Jai Hind!


Shail Kumar

Founder and President

For a world-class higher education system in India

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