Global rankings such as Times Higher Education (THE), QS World Rankings, Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), among others, are essentially tools to understand which are the top higher education institutes in the world. Institutes ranked the best by them represent the congregation of the best of academic minds in the fields of teaching and research, and thus attract the best of the students from across the world.
From India’s perspective, these rankings, though, have been disappointing, as our institutes have not figured amongst the top in the world.
Last year has been encouraging, as India had 31 institutes (THE 2016) in the list of top 980, including seven private universities, though none in the top-200 list. Only the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bangalore and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi featured in the top-150 to 200 list of QS World Rankings.
India has one of the world’s largest higher education systems, with enrolments of 33.3 million students in 50,000 colleges and institutions, and 750-plus universities. By 2020, India will have the world’s largest tertiary-age population and second-largest graduate talent pipeline. But there is a significant lag in terms of quality of such education, as is evinced from the lack of presence of Indian institutes in the top-150 of any of the identified global rankings.
With this in mind, the government announced an initiative as part of the 2016 Union Budget to provide an enabling architecture to 10 public and 10 private institutions to emerge as world-class teaching and research bodies. This was followed up with the release of draft guidelines (in October 2016) by the UGC for public and private institutes who wish to put in their proposal for being categorised as a World Class Institute (WCI) by participating in the special initiative.
These guidelines offer greater autonomy and flexibility to the institutes with WCI status, while enforcing, in return, responsibilities in the areas of performance, governance at the institution level, and availability and access of world-class resources to students and faculty in the country. Flexibility is proposed to be offered in terms of admissions (including foreign students), recruiting foreign faculty, academic and research collaborations, as well as in terms of academic flexibility to offer newer, interdisciplinary courses, in terms of course structuring, duration of programmes, etc. In terms of financial autonomy, the institutes will have some freedom to fix fees, especially in case of foreign students, and in terms of spending the money raised and allocated to them.
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The end-state expected of these 20 WCIs is stated as: “It should come in top-500 of any of the world-renowned ranking frameworks (such as the Times Higher Education World University Rankings or QS or Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University) in the first 10 years of setting up or being declared as a WCI, and come in the top-100 eventually over time.” The guidelines specify execution-related milestones and metrics which the WCIs are expected to accomplish, such as achieving 1:10 faculty-to-student ratio by the end of the initial three-year period, having need-blind, merit-based admissions with adequate scholarships, 20,000 student enrolment within 15 years, accreditation by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) or acceptable alternative, assessed by one reputed global agency, etc.
The other requirement that comes out from draft guidelines is a strong financial backing. So, implementing institutes are expected to have a corpus of Rs 200 crore, guaranteed pipeline of Rs 500 crore and a plan for an additional Rs 1,000 crore, apart from requiring the sponsoring organisation members to have a combined net worth of Rs 8,000 crore.
This signals a major change in the higher education space, requiring any proposal requesting for the WCI status to be backed by corporates/groups with significant financial resources. And, indeed, a welcome one, as funding has been consistently identified as one of the most critical challenges faced by institutes in the country. If Indian institutes have to provide world-class facilities, infrastructure and engage with the best of the faculty to compete with the leading global institutes, they need the requisite financial backing. The not-for-profit character of the proposing and implementing entities will ensure that the money stays within the institutes, to be used for both academic and research purposes.
The draft guidelines are a positive step towards achieving India’s goal of developing world-class institutes. But, in order to achieve this goal, the government, through policy guidelines and implementation measures, needs to address some of the ecosystem-related challenges.
w One, create a pool of high-quality faculty in the country, where currently there is a major shortage. For this, unless the capacity for quality research is increased, generating higher number of quality PhDs, given the serious supply constraints, the initiative may only result in quality faculty from existing institutes being incentivised to move to WCI-tagged institutes having the flexibility for paying higher.
w Two, we need significant increase in funding towards research, with both public and private institutes being eligible to access such funds based on quality and merit of their proposals.
w Three, prioritise the transition from a regulation-based higher education system to the one which is self-governing, with adequate monitoring safeguards through a framework of national and global accreditations.
By successfully implementing this initiative, it is expected that the required ecosystem of having meritorious students and quality faculty members getting together, with the requisite facilities and infrastructure, will be able to produce the next generation of thinkers and problem solvers—a key necessity for an emerging economy like India as well as that for the developing world. This will be a key enabler for India to emerge as the talent and innovation capital of the world.
The author, Mohammed Ali Shariff is a director with Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu India LLP. Views are personal