Is the UGC an Obstacle to Building 'World Class' Universities in India?

We're going to build a small number of world-class universities which will cater to a really, really small number of students while letting the vast majority to suffer at the hands of the UGC and remain mediocre.

A recent report appears to confirm an older one that the government may allow private universities which are still in the planning stage to flaunt a government-approved ‘world-class’ tag.

This latest report follows announcements in the last union budget and reports from even earlier that the government will promote world-class universities in India by selecting 20 – 10 public and 10 private institutions – and grant them near-complete autonomy under a new regulatory framework without the restrictions imposed by the UGC, AICTE and other bodies. Various options were said to have been considered in order to circumvent the existing set of regulations and bestow ‘freedom from government’ to these institutions.

The new regulatory framework

The government’s preference for creating a new regulatory framework, rather than seek to reform the existing one, shows that it perceives the current regulatory system to be an obstruction for the development of good universities. There is also an implicit admission on the part of the government that reforming the existing regulatory framework is near-impossible.

In pushing for a new regulatory framework, however, the government’s actions affirm Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s view that “a characteristic weakness of regulatory regimes in India is that they concentrate on motives and intentions rather than on likely outcomes.”

According to reports, public universities seeking the ‘world class’ tag will likely be chosen from among those which finished in the top 25 of the National Institution Ranking Framework (NIRF) 2016. While this seems reasonable enough, we have to keep in mind that NIRF 2016 was a flawed first-effort at preparing India-wide rankings of universities. And among private institutions, the government will choose from already-existing deemed universities with an National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) ‘A’ rating, and from planned universities with a corpus of Rs 750 crore and which declare that they have noble motives and intentions of becoming ‘world class’.

For the 20 selected institutions, achieving world-class standards will come after the ‘world class’ tag is given to them and not vice versa. However, universities which do not achieve world-class standards, in the form of breaking into the top 500 of world university rankings, may lose their special tag and be downgraded to regular status – and to be once again governed by restrictive UGC rules. According to a recent report, however, this clause may be removed. If this happens, motives and intentions will score a clear and predictable win over outcomes.

Trivialising the meaning of world class universities

There is nothing new about the current government’s initiative to promote world class universities. The UPA government had earlier tried the same with its Universities for Research and Innovation Bill, 2012, to set up 14 world class universities with autonomy from the UGC and other regulatory bodies, and failed.

The initiative is also twisted in some ways.

In seeking to create a separate category of universities that will be independent of the UGC and other regulatory bodies, both the UPA and the NDA governments have effectively admitted that the UGC is an obstacle to building good universities and for higher education in general. The curious question that arises is why the government is not taking up as a matter of utmost priority the task of reforming the UGC or replacing it with another organisation in the same way as it did with the Planning Commission.

It would seem that we plan to build a small number of world-class universities which will cater to a really, really small number of students but at the same time let other ordinary institutions, which the vast majority of students attend, to continue to suffer at the hands of the UGC and remain mediocre. What would be the point of having 20 world class universities with the remaining graduating students with employability rates of 20%?

It is also important to understand that the ‘world class’ tag trivialises the essence of world class universities.

To begin with, pasting the label on academic institutions is puerile. The tag is typically earned by universities through their performance over time, sometimes several decades. There are no shortcuts to acquiring world class status. Yes, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) did it in about two decades and a few other Asian universities have climbed up the charts of world university rankings rather quickly – but most do take longer.

Second, the institutions that most commonly use the ‘world class’ label on themselves are third-rate private universities. These are predatory institutions which attract innocent students and profit at their expense, leaving them unemployed and frustrated. Surely, we do not want our aspiring world-class universities to be using the same label as shady private universities?

Third, what does ‘world class’ even mean? For many of us, a ‘world class’ university is considered to be one that boasts of Nobel Laureates and other high-performing researchers, and offers superb academic and other facilities to students and faculty. In fact, more importantly, world-class is understood as world-ranked, preferably in the list of top 100-200 institutions.

The government’s initiative is only in part about raising world class universities. It seems that what the government wants to do is promote 20 institutions (and one has to ask why 20 and not 15 or 30?) in ways that they begin to count among the top 100-200 in the world and we feel better about our higher education system. What it needs to do is combine this initiative with a more urgent one, that of raising the average quality of education across India’s universities.

Planned private universities with ‘world-class’ tag

One of the more irksome aspects of the initiative is that the government is willing to consider universities that are at a planning stage to claim the ‘world-class’ tag. Under the current scheme, the tag brings privileges that other higher education institutions do not have. ‘Autonomy’ is a huge privilege in the Indian context.

As PM Narendra Modi has noted, the selected universities will have “complete autonomy in academic, administrative and financial matters”. However, the privilege of ‘complete autonomy’ must be earned and not handed as a gift to nonexistent private institutions. Indeed, the criteria for private institutions to be eligible for compete autonomy should be limited to those that already exist and function so that they can be properly assessed, in terms of their promise to evolve into institutions that will achieve high rank in world university rankings.

What would be the point of having 20 world class universities with the remaining graduating students with employability rates of 20%?

The task of assessing the potential of universities should also be done in less routine ways. For already-existing universities, government officials have mentioned NAAC ratings and NIRF rankings. However, both of them have their limitations and are compromised in multiple ways. Therefore, other innovative ways must be considered as well. For one, a clever option would be to identify the current share of foreign-trained faculty at institutions which are seeking the ‘world class’ tag.

Assessing the potential of private universities

In a concept note that the HRD Ministry submitted to the PMO, it noted that the 20 selected universities would be expected to maintain a good proportion of foreign or foreign-trained faculty, somewhere in the range of 25-30%. One possible reason why MHRD inserted this clause is that, on average, faculty trained at institutions abroad has a significantly higher research output than those with PhDs from Indian institutions. Maintaining larger numbers of foreign-trained faculty improves the likelihood of increased research output, which in turn greatly helps in improving that institution’s position in global rankings.

Now, universities which will be awarded the ‘world class’ tag will have the financial autonomy to determine tuition fees and faculty salaries. In theory, what this means is that they can pay internationally competitive salaries and therefore attract both foreign and Indian faculty from abroad. However, salaries are not the only reason why suitably-qualified faculty move across continents or across institutions. They care about living conditions and the overall quality of life. They also care about working conditions.

Competitive salaries may be useful to attract some faculty but maybe not. Therefore, in assessing the potential of private universities to develop into world-ranked institutions (and perhaps even public ones), what could also be taken into account is the current numbers of foreign PhDs on their rolls. If private universities have been able to attract a few (say 15%) foreign-trained faculty members despite UGC restrictions, then they are likely to attract many more of them once they enjoy greater financial autonomy and are able to pay them better.

Finally, the government should not rush to anoint 10 private universities as ‘world-class’. What is the big hurry? Why not identify a few already-existing private institutions first and wait for interested parties which want to build world-class institutions actually build one and get it off the ground before they apply for ‘world-class’ benefits of financial and other kinds of autonomy?

It is not clear whether the government’s approach of seeking to build world-class universities within a short period would be useful for the higher education system overall. Furthermore, higher education experts familiar with India are not optimistic that much will come out of the current initiative. For example, Philip Altbach stated that “a combination of resources, innovative thinking, careful planning and freedom from the overweening control of government are required” for this initiative to succeed but “this is a tall order, and so far India has proved incapable of success.” Can the current government and the next one and the one after defy his prediction?

Pushkar is an assistant professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa.