What Should India Hope to Achieve from Its 'Institutions of Eminence'?

The rise of even a few universities to among the world’s best will help India augment both its soft and hard power.

The University Grants Commission (UGC) recently invited higher education institutions (HEIs) – both public and private, including green field institutions – to apply for the prestigious ‘institutions of eminence (IOE)’ tag. Interested HEIs have three months to submit their applications, after which an empowered experts committee (EEC) will identify ten public and ten private institutions in the elite IOE group. According to the UGC (Institutions of Eminence Deemed to be Universities) Regulations, 2017 (available here and here), the selected institutions will be granted unprecedented administrative and financial autonomy by the government in a wide range of matters including faculty and staff salaries, student fees, course offerings and content, and so on. Other than a reasonably-flexible set of guidelines, they will in fact be completely free of UGC regulations. The government will provide up to Rs 1,000 crore to each of the public institutions. Private institutions will not receive any direct financial support from the government but will have access to public funds for research.

The creation of the IOE category of HEIs is, above all, an admission on the part of the government that India’s universities have failed to be counted among the world’s top-ranked institutions, in large part because of currently-existing UGC regulations. But freedom from UGC regulations comes with high expectations. Universities in the IOE group will be expected to break into the ranks of the world’s top 500 universities in 10-15 years, and eventually into the top 100. Some of the selected IOE institutions which are already among the top 500 or so, such as the Indian Institute of Science, Indian Institute of Technology Bangalore and Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, will probably be expected to make the leap into the top 100 while others such as BITS Pilani and Manipal University – likely to be a shoo-in among private institutions – will be expected to improve their rank substantially. In the Times Higher Education’s (THE) World University Rankings 2018, BITS Pilani finished in the 801-1000 group and Manipal University in the 1001+ group.

Why institutions of eminence?

In our view, the reasoning behind creating the IOE category of institutions goes something like this.

The presence of only a handful of Indian institutions among the top 200 and even 500 universities worldwide is an embarrassment. In the most recent THE rankings, no Indian university finished in the top 250. The absence of world-ranked universities reflects badly on India’s status as a great power and certainly as an emerging world power. Great powers build great universities. China, a country with which India often compares itself, has done exactly that. Seven Chinese universities count among the top 200 in the world with two – Peking University and Tsinghua University – placed in the top 30. Even as we speak, China has set for itself the task of raising 40 world-recognised universities by 2020. From this perspective, India should not be left behind. It is this line of thinking that has provided the approximate rationale for creating the IOE category of institutions.

There is more to creating world-class universities, however. The rise of India’s universities, if it happens, will contribute to the building of more soft power as well as hard power. This is something that critics of IOE do not bring into their analyses. However, neither do government officials and certainly not UGC officials or university administrators.

But the narrowly-defined objective of the IOE category of institutions – that of promoting select universities to get into the world’s top 100 – rankles in some ways. India’s higher education sector is broken. A large majority of colleges and universities offer mediocre and worthless education. The higher education needs of the country are immense and diverse, and the government has only made slow progress in addressing its larger deficiencies, particularly those pertaining to governance and the quality of education. Given this larger plot, why is the government taking all this trouble only to place a handful of universities in the top 100? What are the likely tangible benefits for the nation as a whole from this initiative?

Quit the rankings?

Writing earlier this year, Philip G. Altbach and Ellen Hazelkorn, two eminent scholars of international higher education, expressed the view that most universities in the world – particularly “mid-range national, regional and specialist universities and colleges, and their stakeholders and governments” – should quit the rankings game altogether. They went even further – even ‘flagship’ universities in most countries should do so “because rankings pervert one of the main purposes of higher education, which is to ensure that students and graduates acquire the knowledge and skills needed for a successful, satisfying and active life throughout one’s increasingly longer life span.”

Altbach and Hazelkorn highlighted several good reasons for universities to quit the rankings. Two of their main arguments are:

1. The low probability of success: Altbach and Hazelkorn note that there are more than 18,000 higher education institutions worldwide of which “only a small minority will ever appear in the rankings, no matter how much they try and how many resources are devoted to the task.” To put it in another way, “the top 100 universities represent only 0.5% of higher education institutions or 0.4% of students worldwide.” One could add that most of the top 100 or 200 universities are located in rich countries, especially the US and the UK; and most are older institutions that have devoted substantial resources to the building of the institution over decades, some even a couple of centuries or more – whether from private or public sources – and continue to do so. These elite institutions have a massive head start and continue to consolidate their position as global leaders. Sure, they are a bunch of newer universities that have broken into the top 100 or 200, including some from Asia, but their numbers are small. For the wannabes, the competition for breaking into the top 200 is overwhelming and perhaps beyond their capabilities.

2. The larger objective of higher education institutions: Higher education institutions are meant to – more so in this era of mass education – help students acquire the knowledge and skills needed for a successful life for the life ahead of them. As pointed out by Altbach and Hazelkorn, the number of students enrolled in higher education is forecast to rise from 99.4 million in 2000 to 414.2 million in 2030, representing an increase of 416%. Most of this growth will be in developing countries like India. Governments in these countries need to devote themselves to addressing the higher education needs of these large numbers by building more universities. It is the ‘average’ universities that are “the real backbone of society and their locales” and “serve as the anchor institution, the mainstay for social and economic growth and development.”

Also read: Modi Government’s ‘Institutions of Eminence’ May Increase Inequities in Higher Education

Given that the ‘quit the rankings’ call has come from two well-known experts on the subject, and Altbach has a great deal of familiarity with India’s higher education, the question that comes to mind is whether India’s decision to create the IOE category of institutions in order to push more Indian universities to become world-ranked seems like a viable plan.

We think that it does. However, there can be no doubt that achieving world-ranked status within a period of 10-15 years – especially breaking into the top 100 – will be hard, especially if we consider the track record of our best institutions. An enabling regulatory environment, which the UGC (Institutions of Eminence Deemed to be Universities) Regulations, 2017 is said to provide, has to be used wisely. It is not evident that the top-ranking university officials are up to the task at hand. For example, the way they have handled issues such as plagiarism and publishing in fake journals gives enough cause to worry that only a few may be successful in leading their respective institutions to the top. The poor handling of student unrest at some of India’s best institutions by university administrators, whether at Jawaharlal Nehru University or Banaras Hindu University, also reflects poorly on the abilities and judgment of the current crop of university leaders, most of whom are incredibly servile to political leaders. One has to be skeptical that they are capable of leading the new generation IOE group of institutions to world-ranked status. And leadership is just one of the many problem issues that will come in the way of the IOE group of institutions in their quest for high world rankings.

Students protesting at the Banaras Hindu University gate on Friday. Credit: Facebook/Siddhant Mohan

Students protesting at the Banaras Hindu University gate on Friday. Credit: Facebook/Siddhant Mohan

Hard power, soft power and higher education

India needs to promote a select number of its universities on the world stage. The rationale for promoting the IOE group of institutions comes from the discipline of international relations. The rise of even a few universities among the world’s best will help India augment both its soft power and hard power.

In discussions on the meaning and constituents of power as it applies to nations in the international system, scholars of international relations make a distinction between hard power and soft power. Hard power refers to a nation’s economic and military strength and capabilities, and is quite easily measured. From this perspective, great powers, emerging powers or regional powers, are respected and feared – globally or in their neighbourhood as the case may be – for their hard power. Nations with abundant hard power are often able to have their way with weaker nations because they are feared for the harm they can do to them. However, to a greater or lesser extent, powerful nations also want to be admired and liked. If they are, it may be possible for them to get what they want without the threat of or actual use of force. Joseph Nye coined the term soft power as “the ability to get what [one wants] through attraction rather than coercion or payments.” He identified the sources of soft power in “the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.” Unlike hard power, soft power is difficult to quantify. While economic and military strength is identified as a source of hard power, according to Nye, “much of American soft power has been produced by Hollywood, Harvard, Microsoft, and Michael Jordon.”

For Nye and many others who subscribe to the idea of soft power, a nation’s affinities to democracy, concern for human rights and individual rights and opportunities and other such values, all of which are deeply ingrained in most Western countries, are also admired by nations and peoples around the world and considered worthy of emulation. This gives many Western nations a privileged position in the international community, adding to the influence they already have because of their hard power. Countries like India, where democracy has survived and flourished despite high levels of poverty, are also admired for their success with democracy.

Nations may possess soft power despite lacking in abundant hard power or some aspects of it. Canada and the Scandinavian countries – despite lacking in the military aspects of hard power – are considered to be closest to ideal-type nations in terms of the quality of life, cultural values and other virtues and therefore admired and seen as worth emulating.

More typically, soft power is linked to hard power. A nation’s economic success and/or its military strength enhance its soft power as well. China is not a democracy but in many parts of the world – including India – its rapid economic growth has been much admired and envied. Many other nations would like to emulate China’s economic success. India’s economic growth under democratic conditions too has earned admiration worldwide even though at the same time, its failures with addressing the welfare of millions of its people erode its soft power.

Hard power matters for a nation’s ability to create soft power. In the Cold War era and after, rich North American and European countries, particularly the US, the UK and France, but also the Soviet Union, used their financial resources liberally in cultural and other spheres to project a positive image abroad. In other words, they used their hard power to boost their soft power. Institutions such as the British Council represent the ideal type of cultural investment for building soft power. A country like China has been able to mobilise its resources to promote its culture by, among other things, creating Confucius Institutes and overall, projecting a favourable image abroad. The Chinese leadership takes the idea of soft power – or ruan shili – seriously which is why the country is estimated to be spending $10 billion annually to building its soft power.

Also read: The Future of India’s Best Public Universities Is Bleak

The sources of soft power also lie in a country’s achievements in science, technology, education, sports and culture. It is less commonly recognised that some of these – like achievements and advances in science and technology, typically carried out at universities – feed into augmenting a nation’s hard power as well.

A nation’s universities, especially when they are recognised among the world’s best, are a source of soft power. Young people all over the world admire and want to attend the best universities in the US, the UK and elsewhere. Ordinary people in Chile or China, India or Indonesia, would like their universities to measure up to the world’s best institutions. But countries with world-class universities which attract large numbers of students from around the world benefit immensely in economic terms too. The UK earned £25 billion from international students in 2014-2015; in the US, their contribution was $32.8 billion in 2015-2016. Countries with world-class universities also benefit from brain gain with many students staying on to contribute directly to the economic progress of the host nation after completing their degrees. Thus, countries which attract large numbers of international students accumulate and build more hard power. The best universities in the world are also locations where a vast range of ideas, inventions and discoveries in all areas of human life take place and these have contributed enormously to the material progress of that nation and eventually for much of humankind. In sum, soft power and hard power can be seen as feeding into each other.

Can the IOE initiative succeed?

Critics of the IOE initiative are rightly worried about its impact on lesser institutions and more broadly the rest of the higher education sector. There is no doubt that as India’s student population grows significantly, it is the ‘average’ university that must ‘serve as the anchor institution, the mainstay for social and economic growth and development’. The potential spillover benefits of raising world-ranked universities – and there are many – will be limited if the rest of the higher education sector remains wasted. The government needs to take urgent measures to lift the rest of the higher education sector from the deep hole it has itself pushed it into over the past two-three decades. However, at the same time, critics must understand that there are tangible benefits in building world-ranked universities.

In the final analysis, one of the main concerns about IOE institutions is whether they will succeed in their objectives. That is, can India do with its IOE group of institutions what China has successfully done with Project 211 and Project 985? For that to happen, the institutions in the IOE group must above all find capable leaders none of whom – in the case of public institutions – should be hand-picked by the government. But the task at hand must really begin with the government-appointed EEC members selecting those universities which have the best chance of reaching the top 100.

Pushkar is director, the International Centre Goa (Goa), Dona Paula. Madhvi Gupta is an independent researcher based in Goa. Views expressed are personal.