I recently attended the 5th Global University Summit, in which senior leaders from universities from many countries participated and shared views. It was indeed a unique opportunity to meet and listen to leaders of some of the best universities of the world.  While it was great to hear the views of these top leaders, and there are always things that one learns and approaches that can be translated to Indian context, it became clear to me that the pressing issues for these universities are simply very different from those faced in India.

At a fundamental level, these universities assume that high quality faculty talent is available, and high quality infrastructure exists. Some of the current focus areas for them are how to support higher education in times of reducing government support (almost in all developed countries the support from government for higher education is reducing with governments pushing them to become mostly self sustaining), improving diversity as they believe that in a globalized world diversity will help in their pursuit of excellence, attracting the best students, evolving strategies for making an impact, etc.

One could not help but see the stark difference from the scenario in India. Even in the top Institutes, getting decent faculty is perhaps the predominant issue being faced. And decent infrastructure remains a major concern – there is just too little money being put in for building educational infrastructure, as we still seem to believe that higher education needs just modest funding – an investment of Rs 200-500 crores for setting a university is viewed as extremely “generous”, when this amount is typically used to construct a high quality building for one department (the CS building of UIUC, Georgia Tech, MIT, Stanford – which have come up in the last 10 years, have cost in the vicinity of $100 million). So what is assumed by Universities in the developed world, are the pressing issues in India.

It also became clear that building a world class University, at least by the measures that are used to define such universities, will be a challenge, if not an impossibility, for the next few decades in India. The reason is simple. Research performance drives the global standing of a University, and the two main factors that impact research productivity and quality are faculty and PhD students/postdocs. The well established universities pursue talent at a global level, and are able to get them, given their facilities and good compensation. So they attract the best talent to join as faculty, and they get the best available students in their PhD programs.

The situation in India on these fronts is extremely challenging. Forget about global talent, Indian Institutions are not in a position to attract even the best Indian talent – both the best faculty and the best PhD students from India prefer working overseas. Even the best Indian institution has available to it only those faculty who chose to return to India (or stay in India), and those PhD students who were unable to get fellowships abroad (or did not wish to go abroad).  It should, however be noted, that at the undergraduate level, we are able to attract the best Indian talent, as generally the best students prefer to study in top Institutions in India and only those who cannot make it to them go abroad (if they can afford it.) Unfortunately, top class UGs, while they help build the brand of an Institution in teaching, do not help much in building the research capability of a University.

So, it seems evident to me that in pursuit of excellence, our focus in the foreseeable future should be on doing whatever it takes to attract the best Indian faculty to work in India,  attract top Indian students to do PhD in India (which can be facilitated by good faculty), and leverage the high quality UGs to the extent possible.  And if we are able to achieve this, then in due course excellence will come and ratings will follow.  (For attracting best Indian faculty and PhD students to work in India it is necessary to properly understand from them, what is it that they need to work in India,  and build policies based on this.  I have done one informal survey of Indian PhD students in US on what they need to return to India – results of this survey are available here, and one of UG students in three IITs regarding why they dont do PhD in India and what they need to do a PhD in India – results of this survey are available here.  Inputs from both of these were used to build policies for faculty recruitment and PhD student recruitment at IIIT Delhi. )

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