How to have great universities

How to have great universities – NEP has some useful suggestions towards this. They must be elaborated and acted upon

The recently released draft of New Education Policy (NEP) recommends consolidation of higher education institutions (HEIs), creation of large multidisciplinary universities, and national research council to support research. These can also help in improving the presence of Indian institutions in the global rankings. Currently there are no Indian universities in the top 200 in ARWU or THE rankings, and 3 in the QS rankings.

To better understand key characteristics of the top global universities and how top Indian universities compare, we looked at the top 200 universities globally as per THE ranking, and the top 100 universities and top 100 engineering institutes as per NIRF ranking in India (this covers top institutions like IISc, JNU, BHU, Delhi University, Jadavpur, IITs, NITs, IIITs, etc). We consider three critical factors – age, size and funding – for these two groups.

Of the top world universities, 135 were created in the 19th century when the Humboldt model of research universities was spreading rapidly, and only 15 were created after 1975. In India, only 6 were created before 1900. The vast majority were created after 1975. Modern India is a late starter in developing research universities.

In terms of size, over 90% of top world universities have student strength of more than 10,000 (over 60% have actually more than 20,000) students, and just about 2% have a student population of less than 5,000. In terms of faculty size, only 6% universities have faculty size less than 500, and about 70% have more than a thousand faculty members.

In India, on the other hand, only 7 engineering institutions and 23 universities have more than 10,000 students, and about 60% of the top institutions have a student strength of less than 5,000. In terms of faculty size, only 4 have a faculty size of more than a thousand, and over 80% have a faculty size of less than 500.

Size matters – large size leads to wider research scope and contribution, as well as interdisciplinary research. A large faculty can also lead to more research, and a larger population of students implies that their contribution, impact and influence in society is larger.

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Only top research institutions of a country can hope to make it to the elite club. Research universities are expensive as they have expensive labs, library, high quality computing infrastructure, PhD programme, talented research faculty who have to be compensated well and their teaching loads kept modest. The average per faculty expenditure in the universities ranked between 150 to 200 in THE is about $5,00,000, including R&D expenditure.

In these top institutions in India, the per faculty expenditure is less than $50,000, and the research grant per faculty is about $5,000. Even after considering the fact that manpower and some other costs are lower in India (though research equipment, international travel, digital library subscriptions, etc cost the same as in other countries), this level of expenditure and R&D investment is clearly inadequate and needs to be significantly increased.

While nothing can be done about age, the other two parameters – size and funding – are within the realm of planning and policy making, and we must have suitable policies for these. To have presence in the global top universities, some of the established top institutions may be supported to expand and become globally comparable in size – the new draft NEP has rightly emphasised the need for “large multidisciplinary universities”. For this, a few IITs, NITs, IISERs, central universities, state universities, etc can be motivated and supported to become multidisciplinary and cross a faculty size of 1,000. If size of 50 to 100 research institutions can be taken to global levels in the near future, a dramatic change in our presence can happen.

In addition, we should merge some existing specialised universities with some colleges and research labs. This is an approach Australia took a few decades ago under Dawkin’s reforms with remarkable success. This is also the approach France is pursuing.

For top HEIs to reach world rankings, support for research will have to increase substantially. First, the top institutions (say top 100 based on the NIRF research score) should be provided multi-year committed research funding based on performance in the previous years – an approach the UK and Australia follow with great results. As the grants are performance based, better performing institutions will get a larger share of these grants. Second, competitive research project funding has to increase dramatically. Many advanced countries invest over 20% of their government R&D expenditure for research in the university sector. In India, less than 4% of government R&D expenditure goes to universities. The National Research Foundation suggested in NEP can progressively scale this up.

It must be emphasised that these universities (with size and funding) will also need to have strong systems to support high quality research, recruit the best talent and promote meritocracy and provide them with support, build a culture of innovation, have strong leadership and governance, etc.

It should also be kept in mind that being in the top 200 globally is a zero sum game – for an Indian HEI to be in this group, a university currently in the group will have to drop out. And as countries are eager to have their presence in this elite group, there will be tough competition, which will require desired changes at a faster pace.

Courtesy: TOI

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