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India must regain its lost glory in higher education

Hindustan Times
By Professor  

"The newly-appointed Union minister for human resource development, Prakash Javadekar, has a number of issues to address for revamping the higher education sector. On February 29, Union finance minister Arun Jaitley announced in his budget speech that an “enabling regulatory architecture will be provided to 10 public and 10 private institutions to emerge as world-class teaching and researchinstitutions”. If we are serious about building world-class universities, we need to address the following:

 Autonomy and Regulation: The first and most important reform for world-class universities is to free them from the shackles of academic bureaucracy and from all forms of external intervention that impedes their growth and evolution. The existing regulatory framework makes universities function like mediocre departments within the government structure where decision-making is hierarchical, frustratingly slow and lacks the vision and imagination for institution building. It is necessary that the transformation to world-class universities be led by the HRD ministry in collaboration with the Niti Aayog.

The Niti Aayog, tasked with the agenda of transforming India, is well suited to undertake this responsibility.

Funding and Resources: World-class universities do not come cheap. Every aspect of it, be it the recruitment of faculty, funding for research, support for research centres, creation of incubation centres, development of physical infrastructure, use of technology, provision for holistic learning and student experiences on campus and beyond, and international opportunities for students — all require significant funding. 

It would be naïve to think that we will be able to establish world-class universities without a radical re-examination of our funding framework and the resources that we make available for our universities. Every year, we recognize that higher education funding is less than what it should be and that its percentage of GDP needs to be higher. The resources that are required for establishing world-class universities and nurturing them in a sustainable manner would be several-fold higher than other universities. Individual and corporate philanthropy needs to be significantly promoted with a range of incentives including a taxation structure that favours philanthropy in higher education.

Faculty and Research: Most Indian universities have not fully understood and appreciated the central role played by outstanding faculty members in leading their research agendas. Faculty and research is the fulcrum on which world-class universities are built. 

The need for recruiting the top-most faculty members and providing attractive compensation and benefits is a norm in all world-class universities. There cannot be a standardised system of faculty salaries in which all members, regardless of their qualification, academic performance, academic standing, research work and publication record need to be given same salaries because of their years of work experience, or for that matter seniority. It will be a futile exercise to promote research and scholarship in universities and encourage faculty members to take research seriously without an equally important public policy commitment to have a better faculty-student ratio. This can help inreducing the teaching responsibilities so that they engage in research and knowledge creation. The historical evolution of knowledge systems in India has provided a great civilisational heritage for us to build and nurture world-class universities. We need to introspect why we haven’t yet played a leadership role and take steps that will enable us to attain a prominent position in higher education.

C Raj Kumar is founding vice chancellor, OP Jindal Global  University.