Given how few Indian universities feature in global rankings—only three, from over 700, make it to the top-200 in the latest QS World University Rankings—a lot was expected from the government’s vision of creating 20 world-class universities, if only because over 2 lakh Indian students go overseas to study each year and spend over $10 billion while doing so. But the policy fell short since what was required was a complete overhaul in approach and, now, the wait for these institutes of eminence (10 government and 10 private) has got longer. Mint reports that the government has deferred the plan till an inter-ministerial group comprising HRD minister Prakash Javadekar, former HRD (now textiles) minister Smriti Irani, power minister Piyush Goyal and commerce & industry minister Nirmala Sitharaman work out a few kinks.
What prompted the rethink has not been disclosed, but Mint, citing two government officials, reports that the current design for reservation is one of the key factors behind the policy being kept in abeyance. Since there is a 50% reservation for ST/SC/OBC and physically handicapped in public-funded institutions, if the 30% cap on foreign students is read as reservation, the argument is, this leaves very few seats for ‘general category’ students. While this needs to be addressed, a more fundamental issue is of reservations being anathema to global-class, and could, in fact, be one of the reasons behind why most Indian institutions fail to make the cut when it comes to global education rankings. Indeed, the fact that students who make it to colleges on the basis on reservations still need another round of reservations, in jobs, would suggest the reservation in faculty is affecting students of the same groups the policy seeks to help. Ironically, if the reservation in faculty is accepted, if an IIM-Ahmedabad wants to be considered a world-class institution, it will have to do a U-turn on its current policy of no reservations in faculty.
Another reason cited, by Mint, is that there is some unease about completely freeing these institutions from the UGC’s regulatory yoke—if true, this is unfortunate since, time and again, the government has spoken of the need for autonomy from regulators like the UGC in favour of a system where better colleges/universities would get more autonomy. In any case, for all the talk of complete autonomy in the original policy, the government did mandate caps for hiring foreign teachers (25%) and admitting foreign students (30%).
So, it will likely set the vision back by years if the final design were to incorporate a framework for regulatory checks, especially if they carry the levels of discretion typical in the country. The government now has a chance to set right the flaws of the earlier policy. It must start with junking the inclusion-based reservation approach and relaxing the regulatory control it has allowed itself so far. Unless this is fixed, why would private institutions that are free from regulatory yoke right now, want to agree to the restrictions that come along with the tag of being a ‘world-class’ institution? From the government’s point of view, if institutions like the IITs are freed from reservations as they come under the ‘world-class’ tag, how is it to accommodate the increasing clamour for reservations. India can’t have world-class educational institutions in the public sector till it resolves this dilemma.