Column : Top profs must get 4 times regular salary

Written by Kaushik Basu | Updated: Jun 28 2009, 03:58am hrs
The broad ideas outlined in the main report, such as forming an apex body for managing Indias higher-education sector, nurturing inter-disciplinarity and extending university education to much larger and diverse segments of the populationare commendable. My apprehension, however, is that without more detailed plans of action and sharper targets these broad aims will remain unfulfilled, like so many well-meaning previous pronouncements. What I mention here are items which, in my opinion, deserve consideration but are omitted or not emphasised in the report and also some fine points on which I have a difference of opinion.

First, the main report speaks about the need for greater autonomy for colleges and universities. However, one stumbling block for this objective is the huge power vested in the UGC and AICTE. There is need for these organisations to divest themselves of some of this power. Also, there should be a refocusing of their main function. One principal activity of a revised UGC should be to rate universities and institutes of higher education. As we know from the modern industrial sector, good quality rating is vital for the economy and successful nations spend a lot to collate information and rate corporations. The UGC should, likewise, produce and publicise ratings of and information about all universities and institutes of higher education. This should be a detailed, annual exercise and be prominently available on a website.

Second, we have to recognise that it is not possible for any government, let alone the government of a developing nation, to run over three hundred universities with equal generosity. This takes us to the touchy topic of salaries and research support. The old system of a flat scale, where every professor was supported in the same way across all the over-300 universities, was once an attractive idea. It is no longer feasible. On the one hand, most nations are switching over to the system of special salaries and research budgets for star researchers and professors. This began with the US. Now other nations, including UK and even China, have switched to this. On the other hand, corporate salaries have gone through the roof. Given these facts (about which there is little that we can do), if we want to attract top talent to research and teaching, we have to allow for pay differentials. The exact modality of this will entail discussion and debate. Two ways of doing this are: first, designating, say, 20 universities, as centres of excellence and putting them on a higher funding scale. The list of top 20 should be evaluated and revised every three years so that all universities stand a chance of getting there. The second option is to select a small number of professors in each field from the entire nation and place them on a higher salary and research support. By higher salary I do not mean 5% or 10% higher but three or four times the regular professorial salary.

Third, we should allow private sector money to come into higher education. Surreptitious privatisation is already a fact of life. It will be better to let this happen openly; there can then also be open monitoring.

Finally, this is the time to consider steps to make India into the worlds major hub for higher education. Given our historic (though eroding) advantage in higher education, our strength in the English language and our low cost-of-living, it is possible for India to position itself as a major destination for students not just from poor countries, but rich, industrialised nations, such as Korea, UK and even the US. One reason why an African student goes to the US to study is to then acquire the right to stay on there and work. Attracting such a student will not be easy. But consider an American student who anyway has the right to go back to the US and work there. In the US each year of education costs approximately, $50,000 or Rs. 25 lakh. If India can build some good universities with high quality residences for students and advertise globally, India can give this market tough competition. If India charges tuition fees of Rs 5 lakh per annum from foreign students, then with all other overheads a student can get quality education for Rs 8 lakh per annum, which is 1/3rd the cost in the US.

The author is professor of economics, Cornell University and was a member of the Yashpal committee. This is an extract from his note of dissent