As India aims to acquire better global rankings, policymakers must develop regional centres of excellence in education based on local trends, proclivities, resources and history
British educationist Alick Maclean undertook arguably one of the earliest attempts at producing a university ranking system. Maclean’s study Where We Get Our Best Men (1900), which betrays the late Victorian England’s obsession with its own laurels, remained unnoticed outside the university circuits in England. However, more than a hundred years later, the context, connotations and the scope of such rankings have changed dramatically. With the inclusion of higher education as an “internationally traded” service in the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), universities have become commodities that must sell to sustain themselves in a globally-competitive education industry. Rankings are loudly advertised and have become the very touchstone of marketability. Even in a welfare State like India, where the bulk of higher education is Government-aided and therefore beyond the pale of market vagaries, there has been, of late, a near-feverish fixation with rankings. And while (because) Indian universities weren’t performing too well at Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) or Webometrics world rankings, we introduced leagues of our own in the form of National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) and National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF). To many of the stakeholders, “ranking” is an unwarranted western import which puts the institutions of developing countries at a natural disadvantage.
With their emphasis on measuring research output in terms of publications in English language journals, the global system of accreditation perpetuates the dominance of Anglo-American and to a lesser extent, European institutions. Besides the system of peer-review and mutual-referencing aren’t the most transparent of academic practices. Since the Government appears keen on incrementally linking an institution’s domestic and international standings with the volume and the manner of funding, some even suspect that the entire hoopla is a decoy for privatisation. And then there are those critics who believe that at a time when the majority of university graduates, as highlighted in the Government’s own findings, are unemployable, our pursuit of global stature reeks of waylaid competitive nationalism, hollow chest-thumping and the general lethargy of a stagnated eduction sector. They argue, with some merit, that it would profit the universities more if the staff are mobilised towards research and teaching instead of tedious report compilation. Till a few years ago, before the launch of NAAC and NIRF, many believed that better rankings accrue from user-friendly websites and perception management.
Under the circumstances, quality becomes a procedural casualty and our estimation of a university’s true worth, based on a set of universal parameters, remains delusional and misleading. For example, in several assessment paradigms, the share of international faculty and foreign students substantially propels an institution’s ranking. While this may not be the strength of Indian universities, not many countries of the world can boast of a higher education system which is more committed to affirmative action and social inclusion, than our own.
The massification of education and steep rise in enrollment rates may not deliver immediate dividends but these steps will see India rise as a leader in research and development (R&D) in times to come. Fortunately, the NIRF identifies an institution’s inclusivity at the levels of region, class, gender and physical disability as a parameter in quality assessment. But there are, as yet, no points for diversity in faculty.
As India aims to overhaul its higher education infrastructure through a New Education Policy (NEP), creating world-class institutes of eminence (IoEs) and acquiring better global rankings appear to be two of the priorities. It is expected that resources generated through public private partnership (PPP) and introduction of industry-centric courses will provide stimulus to these enterprises. The Ministry of Human Resource Development’s (MHRD) pitch for IoEs encourages international outreach. Under the scheme, the 16 designate institutions have been empowered to collaborate with foreign universities and recruit up to 25 per cent of their total faculty strength from outside India.
The success of the much-touted ‘Study in India’ campaign, too, is largely hinged on our ability to create IoEs and secure better ranking. The campaign, if successful, will not only bring revenue but the increase in the number of offshore students would also improve our global stature. The degree of internationalisation of higher education, which is partly consequent upon global ranking, will certainly augment India’s soft power. The Government’s website on the initiative lists instruction in English medium, the size of India’s market, recent start-up culture and pluralist campuses as our strengths. But when we leverage our educational infrastructure to entice the global student community, we need to ask the following question: who are we inviting to study in India and what do we have to offer? Given India’s financial constraints and our social commitment to bring the majority into the fold of higher education, planners and policymakers will have to make a series of difficult choices. They will have to choose between scaling a few hand-picked institutions to global stature and making the majority of Central/State universities competitive with respect to education infrastructure in Asia and Africa. Let us not forget that as of now, Indian universities cater mostly to students from South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries.
In some cases, to the wealthy South Koreans and Africans, too. In terms of their preferred academic destinations in India, these foreign students choose mostly institutions located in metropolitan centres. Therefore, we also need to choose between buttressing the existing patterns of student-inflow and creating regionally diverse centres of learning. Further, we have to decide between promoting subjects which feed the local industry and those that are most sought after in the target countries. If we are to invite students to study in India, when the domestic expectation itself is of a cosmic proportion, we must think of ways of marrying the two prerogatives. A balance must be struck between the strategic need to invite foreign students and delivering on the moral imperatives of the State.
Policymakers need to think of developing regional centres of excellence based on local trends, proclivities, resources and history. Delhi is nearly saturated, so are Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Pune. India needs to create more hubs, showcasing local strength and areas where Indians excel. To that effect, here is a modest proposal. Institutes based in the north-eastern States can be developed into hubs for training in cottage and small-scale industries. Maharashtra and Gujarat can become centres of commerce and trade education. South India could be developed into India’s science hub while Bengal and Bihar can shine as regions catering to humanities and social sciences. Haryana can do exceptionally well in sports and physical health and Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha can lead global research on tribal knowledge systems and sustainable human ecology. At the same time, we must also think of capitalising on domains of knowledge to which we have had privileged access and that have traditionally been our strength. In subjects such as ayurveda, yoga and mental health, with an untapped global market, we have a lot to offer even to the most advanced countries of the world. There is an ayurvedic medical college in my own nondescript village in Bihar. But over the years, instead of attracting students from other States, let alone from other countries, the institution has shrunk both physically and in terms of footfall. Instead of investing in disciplines where global competition is stiff, the MHRD should think of promoting a few institutes dedicated to indigenous knowledge systems as IoEs. In these areas, the chances of becoming a world leader are bright, realistic and hugely rewarding.
But as we draw these schemes, we must never forget that a lot will depend on the quality of teachers employed at these institutes. Paradoxically, as things stand today, students studying outside India, with their international experience and exposure, are being projected as key to the success of the ‘Study in India’ initiative. We have to put in place a robust system of attracting and retaining talented students and teachers. Given the current state of affairs, appointment of teachers would be a good beginning point. Unless we engage and strengthen our workforce, these schemes will be reduced to corporate style weekend workshops on capacity building that offer nothing but a distraction from monotony. That too on a weekend.
(Writer: Gautam choubey; Courtesy: The Pioneer)