The Narendra Modi government since 2014 has launched a series of initiatives in the higher education sector to improve the standing of India in the world.
This is natural as India aspires to become a global power and reclaim its long-lost glory of being a Vishwa guru (world teacher).
Education is going to play a crucial role towards making India a force to reckon with in the international arena. It’s one of the best soft powers a nation can build up in attracting students from all over and thereby influencing their outlook from India’s point of view.
The United States today is the undisputed leader on this front. China, the world’s second most influential power, is fast developing itself to challenge the hegemony of the US in the education sector.
In this light, it is only natural for India to make concrete efforts to create a space for itself as well.
Some of the initiatives taken by the Modi government in recent past include providing unprecedented levels of academic and financial autonomy to Indian Institutes of Management, graded autonomy to institutions of higher learning based on their performance, freeing top 20 institutions — 10 public and 10 private — the so-called ‘Institutions of Eminence’ from regulatory control, launching Massive Open Online Courses (MOCCs) under SWAYAM initiative where teachers of top institutions provide free courses, opening seven new IIMs, six new IITs, establishing a Higher Education Funding Agency to give financial support to institutions for infrastructure development, setting up a Higher Education Regulatory Council, the National Testing Agency and so on.
The government is also trying to achieve some level of internationalisation of its university spaces - by attracting foreign teachers and foreign students.
The Study in India programme launched in 2018, for instance, envisions to increase foreign student strength in India to over two lakh by 2023 from present 40,000.
While all this is well and good, the government seems to be giving too much reliance on improving rankings of its universities in reputed World University Rankings (chiefly those published by QS and Times).
On the surface, one wouldn’t find anything wrong in making an attempt, but the devil, so to speak, is in the details.
The World University rankings in the West are modelled on the way the universities in the West are structured. This gives the universities there undue advantage and puts those in India at a disadvantage.
For example, it’s not so uncommon for the top universities in the US to have 100-200 courses spanning across various streams from engineering to management to liberal arts to sciences.
While in India, we have separate institutions focussing on different areas: IITs are for engineering, IIMs for management, IISc for Sciences, NLUs for Law, Jawaharlal Nehru University focussing on liberal arts and so on.
This is how the Indian State went on about setting up higher education spaces in the country. These were supposed to be institutes for specific purposes rather than universities which mean everything for everyone.
But now, these are trying to ape the West in order to compete in World University Rankings, which matter little in the real world. Whether they will succeed is uncertain, but they will most likely lose their focus from areas which they have mastered over the past fewer decades and venture into streams they have little idea or experience about.
Recently, we are seeing a trend in some IITs, IIMs which are starting liberal arts courses in their campuses. This is worrying given the quality of teachers as well as the study material in that stream available today.
We will end up with little JNUs in these top-quality institutes known for their academic excellence.
Of course, it is no one’s case that IITs, IIMs et al shouldn’t come up with courses which blend their specialism with some social sciences.
For example, IIIT-Delhi started a B.Tech course in 2017 which would be a blend of Computer Science and Social Sciences. The idea is to produce ‘social scientists who can understand and use computational technologies.’
This is a unique and right approach for Indian institutes like IITs, IIMs to take rather than blindly opening social science streams for the sake of scoring well in world rankings.
Another aspect of these World rankings that needs to be looked at is their weightage to the internationalisation factor.
In both the Times and QS methodology, certain percentage of points are awarded to universities depending on the international staff and international students on the campus.
India’s Study in India programme and its intention to attract foreign faculty should be seen in this light. While both are commendable goals, that shouldn’t take away focus from investing in quality research.
The money spent by the government on Research and Development is minuscule and is way less than what top institutions which feature in the rankings do.
Another important distinction that needs to be recognised is that our top education institutions are public institutions and, thus, are forced to compromise on talent for the sake of social justice by reserving 60 per cent of seats in both faculty and student intake.
This factor cannot be wished away and will keep haunting us as far as quality of research, output, placements, etc is concerned.
Rather than chasing the global rankings and tweaking our higher education model, the emphasis should be on building on our own strengths.
Take the QS higher education rankings of last year (2019). Only three of our institutes featured in the top 200 universities when they were ranking on overall criteria.
But when it comes to specific subjects, we did much better. In Engineering and managements, top IITs and IIMs feature in the top 50 and there are three IITs and three IIMs which feature in the top 100. IISc was second in the World in ‘citations per faculty’ criterion.
This is a good performance and if we ignore these and keep looking at overall scores, we may end up doing more harm than good and miss the wood for the trees.
Arihant Pawariya is Senior Editor, Swarajya.
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!