In pursuit of the excellence in higher education


The recent decision of the Government of India to create new institutions of global excellence with an expenditure of ten thousand crores rather than investing in improving the existing ones is a bit strange. It implies that it is alright to let majority of existing intuitions remain ‘mediocre’ because apparently they don’t need any reform. It also implies that millions of students in existing intuitions must continue to suffer and the nation can be run by the few thousand students that new institutions will create, no matter how bright.

Maybe the same thing can be said about bureaucracy and other social systems. So will we scrap the current bureaucratic system because it is not delivering as much as fast as desired and create new specialised agencies to run the country? May be this is the reason that all reports on bureaucratic reform have been gathering dust all these years.
What about the political system then? Don’t we have much greater scope of reforms in the quality of candidates who get elected and represent the masses and obviously some deliver, many don’t?

In other words, there is a fundamental question that we need to ask about how do we learn from the great achievements made by the country in the different fields with the people educated in this country (not diaspora of course) and explore if we can we learn some lessons?

There is no doubt that a lot is wrong with the way many institutions govern themselves, feel timid in nurturing excellence, letting diversity bloom and letting stars glow. But then answer is not to let them stew in their broth and create new soup for rebuilding society.

Let me suggest a way forward: a) Let us make a list of academics who global leaders in their field, b) listen to them how did they achieve that excellence, c) take their suggestions about how can institutions replicate their experience, d) shun pressures to put mediocre as directors or vice chancellors and e) rebuild agenda of educational reforms. This country has achieved in many fields proving that global excellence can indeed be achieved. Learn a bit from Chinese experience. Learn Aa little from outstanding centres, departments, individuals and also public and private institutions. Look at the extent to which the knowledge and experience of top leaders in various fields has been used in shaping public policy and programs.

I am sure Indian institutions can be reformed. Let me give you a few examples. In many developed countries, a scholar continues to work and guide students, help colleagues so long as they have agility to do so. A bright professor can hire as many post-doc as she can guide and manage resources for (internally and externally) and build a school of thought. These recruitments don’t require too much interference by other faculty. Likewise, faculty have significant say in selection of students they wish to guide for doctoral research of course subject to meeting meeting minimum standards. Director don’t breathe down their neck all the time. Directors take pride in encouraging such stars. Naturally, productivity improves. If a doctoral student can submit thesis without publishing even two papers in indexed journals, then how quality can be achieved. Many IITs do this and thus are improving their standards.

The Institutions which have produced renowned students can also develop renowned scholars and faculty. Too much of regulation hasn’t produced results in any sector of economy, least of all education. Premium on originality and innovation is inevitable. But that neds nurturing platforms like having information of about 200k engg projects by 500 k students. We need such platforms in all fields, let all projects by students be put online. Let the impact of sharing knowledge on quality and practice be seen. Finding good faculty in many of the new IIMs and IITs has not been not easy. Where will the proposed new institutions get faculty from.

I am sure that creating new institutions will do some good. But starving existing institutions of resources as Finance Ministry recently did by rejecting MHRD proposal to strengthen IITs doesn’t bode well for India. I plead for a national debate on the subject with an open mind.


Visiting Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad & IIT Bombay and an independent thinker, activist for the cause of creative communities and individuals at grassroots, tech institutions and any other walk of life committed to make this world a more creative, compassionate and collaborative place