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Education

Why Institutions of Eminence Should Be Set up at the State-Level

If 20 states declare five private universities each as autonomous and these are also able to get autonomy from UGC under the graded autonomy scheme, we will have 100 universities that can then try to improve their quality of education.

As I have been saying for more than a year, my hope from the ‘Institutions of Eminence’ (IoE) process was that if 10 private institutions are given complete autonomy, they will improve in their quality of education and research and that would create a constituency for greater autonomy for everyone. The reason the process was disappointing is that only two private institutions were selected (the ‘greenfield’ ones do not count since there is no comparison between pre-autonomy and post-autonomy era in their case); even from these two, one’s autonomy – that of BITS Pilani – has been withheld. One wishes that they had given autonomy to the best 10 institutions without bothering about whether they would be in the top 500 in 10 years or not.

Would graded autonomy not serve the purpose? No. IoE autonomy is greater than the highest level of graded autonomy. Most importantly, IoE autonomy is taking the institutions away from state government control by converting the private ones into deemed-to-be universities (if they are not already). Many states have controls which are sometimes even worse than those imposed by the University Grants Commission (UGC) or the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE). For example, in some states, tuition control is so rigid that there is no way one can follow all the UGC/AICTE guidelines on the faculty-student ratio and still give salaries to faculty members as recommended by the UGC.

Over the last couple decades, I have been hoping that the competitions between states to attract the best educational institutions would ensure that they come up with policies giving more autonomy to their institutions. For example, I hoped that other states will notice how Rajasthan has so many private players setting up good quality institutions and will realise that it is because Rajasthan has a very light regulatory framework for private universities. But this hasn’t happened. On the contrary, in some states, the regulatory framework is becoming more rigid and reducing autonomy for their private universities. Unfortunately, quality has not been a focus of our education policy; only cost has. Worthless degrees at low prices are considered better than a good education at higher prices, particularly in an election year. And the changes done in an election year cannot be undone after the elections.

So given that worthless degrees at low cost will remain the focus of higher education policy of most states, is there any way we can have some quality institutions (other than central government ones and the deemed universities)? At a meeting, I heard a solution. This is not my idea, but I loved it so am hence sharing it here: have an IoE scheme at the state level. Just convince the state governments that they can have hundreds of colleges where all their voters can get admission – but give autonomy to five private universities in the state based on whatever quality criteria the state decides.

Just imagine: if 20 states declare five private universities each as autonomous and these are also able to get autonomy from UGC under the graded autonomy scheme, we will have 100 universities that can then try to improve their quality of education and research beyond the expectations of our regulators. If we don’t worry about being in the top 500 and remain concerned only with the quality, there is a greater chance of our universities breaching the ‘top 500’ list.

This article was originally published on Dheeraj Sanghi’s blog and has been reproduced here with permission. Sanghi is a professor in the computer science department at IIT Kanpur.