Education

The Future of India’s Best Public Universities Is Bleak

In the coming years, India’s best public universities may come to be literally discarded in terms of government support and will be choked by old and new government regulations.

The University of Hyderabad (HCU). Credit: University of Hyderabad

The University of Hyderabad (HCU). Credit: University of Hyderabad

Pushkar is director, The International Centre Goa (ICG), Dona Paula. The views expressed here are personal.

Project Vishwajeet, conceived and proposed by the human resources development (HRD) ministry to allocate Rs 8,700 crore to the top seven IITs to help them raise their global standing, has been turned down by the finance ministry. This will be a big disappointment for the supporters of the project, particularly the IITs (Chennai, Guwahati, Kanpur, Kharagpur, New Delhi, Powai and Roorkee) that were looking forward to the injection of extra government resources.

However, those familiar with how policies are made and unmade in India’s higher education sector will hardly be surprised by the government’s turnaround, especially if they pause to consider the reasons behind the scrapping of Project Vishwajeet as well as their implications.

It has been reported that the finance minister had recommended in a note to the HRD ministry that the IITs construct world-class laboratories through existing grants or the recently launched Institute of Eminence (IE) scheme. According to a government official (emphasis added):

Under the Institute of Eminence scheme, 10 select government institutes will be given approximately Rs 1,000 crore. The finance ministry suggested that the IITs compete for that scheme instead of expecting funds through the Vishwajeet project.

 

The finance minister’s decision to scrap Vishwajeet has come at a time when the government is preparing to select 10 public and 10 private institutions in the IE group. This group will be granted unprecedented autonomy by the government in a wide range of matters: governance, faculty and staff salaries, student fees, foreign faculty and students up to 30%, course offerings, content, etc. They will be completely free of University Grants Commission (UGC) regulations.

The selection of the IE group will be based on the performance of higher education institutions in the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF). After they are selected, institutions in the IE group will be expected to break into the ranks of the world’s top 500 universities in a decade and eventually into the top 100. The government will also provide Rs 10,000 crore to the public institutions in the group.

Until now, there had been some ambiguity about whether the institutions selected as IE would be

  1. Only comprehensive institutions i.e. traditional universities, or
  2. Both science and technology-heavy institutions as well as traditional universities.

Since Project Vishwajeet – specifically designed for the IITs – was about to take off, there was a possibility that comprehensive institutions such as central universities and state universities would not compete with the IITs because they are different kinds of institutions. The latter is more narrowly focused on engineering to make it into the IE list to reap the benefits of generous government support and autonomy. In other words, it appeared that the government’s plan was to use Project Vishwajeet to finance and boost the IITs, while the best central and state universities would be preferred for inclusion in the IE group.

But the statement by the government official quoted above makes it clear that, with the scrapping of Vishwajeet, regular universities will have to compete with the IITs for generous government funding that the IE group of institutions will be entitled to regardless of the fact that such competition is quite unfair. The government has basically decided that it is not interested or willing to spend separately for both comprehensive institutions and technology- and science-focused institutions.

Why does this matter? What are the implications of scrapping Project Vishwajeet? To understand this, one needs to look at the framework and methodology of university rankings as well as the government’s approach towards universities.

NIRF as a weapon

The national rankings system – NIRF – was introduced in 2016 with much fanfare but was quite shabby in almost every respect, especially how it ranked universities. It underwent some changes in its second, 2017, edition but remains a work in progress. However, some of the changes between the 2016 and 2017 editions are interesting in that they will have far-reaching consequences in India’s higher education landscape.

In the first edition of NIRF, higher education institutions competed in four categories: universities, engineering, management and pharmacy. Their participation was voluntary and they could choose to compete in one category only. Universities and most technology-heavy institutions such as the IITs competed under separate categories of “universities” and “engineering”, respectively, though some engineering-focused institutions like BITS Pilani competed in the university category. At that time, the rankings were criticised for, among other things, allowing the IITs to compete under the category of “engineering” institutions only when they compete globally in world university rankings with the best universities in the world.

In the 2017 rankings, the rankings framework was revised and the IITs were ranked under “engineering” institutions as well as in the “overall” category, clearly an improvement over NIRF 2016.

The NIRF remains controversial for its limitations (for example, see here and here). But there is hope that the rankings framework and methodology will improve over time. It is also true that all rankings have limitations, whether carried out by THE, QS or others. But since NIRF 2017 – and perhaps NIRF 2018 as well – will provide the basis for the selection of the IE group of institutions, their flaws, limitations and the potential for misuse by the government need to be better understood.

In that sense, NIRF is a weapon, or an instrument certainly, in the hands of the government to marginalise and squeeze the best comprehensive public institutions in the country – such as the JNU, BHU and the HCU, which ranked 6th, 10th and 14th respectively in the “overall” category of NIRF 2017.

The forecast for universities is bleak

If I had to predict the 10 public institutions to make it to the IE list, I would bet against the inclusion of even one comprehensive institution, like JNU or the HCU. It is highly likely that that the 10 public institutions in the IE group will only include science- and technology-heavy institutions. The official reason for their failure to make it into the IE group will be that they did not rank high enough in the NIRF rankings in the “overall” category. But the real reason for the exclusion of our best comprehensive public institutions from the IE group will be that they are regarded and treated as enemies of the state.

JNU loudly declared itself as anti-national in 2016, as did HCU soon after. BHU may still make the grade because it was ranked 10th overall in NIRF 2017 and there are no serious charges against its ‘character’. But both JNU and BHU may find themselves out of the top 10 in the “overall” category in NIRF 2018 for matters of convenience, and will therefore not find a place in the IE group.

In addition, the creation of the IE group of institutions is for the narrow and specific purpose of pushing select Indian higher education institutions into the list of the world’s best universities. World rankings themselves are biased in favour of institutions are strong in the sciences, engineering and medicine. Thus, institutions such as IISc and the IITs stand a better chance of breaking into the top 100 worldwide. Therefore, if only science- and technology-heavy institutions are selected in the IE group, criticisms of bias against regular universities will seem weak.

However, the selection of an IE group consisting only of science- and technology-focused institutions will deal a big blow to India’s university system, which already is in deep crisis. As of now, the few central and state universities that remain reasonably good are being disciplined and punished. Most of the rest are already broken in most respects, including funding, governance and the quality of education. The private sector is growing rapidly in terms of number of institutions and enrolments. Its massive growth has introduced new kinds of distortions in the higher education sector – including growing student debt and loan defaults and under- and unemployment – which few policy wonks, including government officials, are interested in discussing, let alone addressing.

Until the scrapping of Project Vishwajeet, there was faint hope that at least a few comprehensive public institutions would be included in the IE group of institutions, which would help them get a lift. But that possibility is almost all gone. The government, perhaps also due to the economic slowdown since demonetisation, has decided that it cannot afford to spend public monies on both comprehensive institutions and the IITs.

In the coming years, it would be fair to expect that India’s best public universities will be literally discarded in terms of government support yet still choked by all sorts of governmental regulations. For better – but more likely for worse – the future of our best public universities, especially those strong in the humanities and social sciences, is bleak.