India’s Quest for World Ranked Universities

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This century has seen rise in importance of global university rankings which has led to universities vying to improve their global rankings. In India, as in many other countries, there is a strong desire to have some of its preeminent universities recognized as among  the top in the world – currently there are no Indian universities in top 200 in Academic Rankings of World Universities (the Shanghai rankings-ARWU) or Times Higher Education (THE) rankings, and a couple in QS rankings.

Global rankings largely depend on the research performance of a university, and factors like publications, citations, PhD program, research income, heavily influence the ranking. Only top research institutions of a country can hope to make it to the top 200. To have some of the research universities of India in this group, we must understand key characteristics of the top global universities and how top Indian universities compare.

We look at the top 200 universities globally in the THE ranking, and the top 100 Universities and the top 100 Engineering Institutes in the new Indian national ranking (NIRF)  – these cover top institutions like Indian Institutes Technology (IITs), Institute of Science, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Banaras Hindu University, Jadavpur, etc., though does not cover specialized institutions in fields such as   Law, Pharma, and Management. We compare three critical factors – age, size, and funding – for these two groups.

Age

Of the top universities in THE rankings, the number of institutions created in different time periods is as follows: 135 were created in the 19th century when the Humboldtian model of research universities was spreading rapidly, 30 were created in the first half of the 20th century, and only 38 were created after 1950, of which only 15 were founded after 1975.

In India, of the top institutions, only 6 were created before 1900, and only 17 were created in the first half of the 20th century.  In the quarter century after independence (between 1950 to 1975), 58 were created,  including the original five IITs. And the vast majority – a total of 119 – were created after 1975.

In other words, whereas only 7% of top world universities were created after 1975, in India about 60% of the top institutions were created after 1975; and while of the world’s top universities over 65% were created before 1900, this is about 3% for India.

Size

In terms of size, in the top global universities,  over 90% have student strength of more than 10,000 (over 60% have actually more than 20,000) students, and just about 2% have a student population of less than 5,000. In terms of faculty size, only 6% universities have faculty size of < 500, and about 70% have more than a 1000 faculty members.

In India, on the other hand, only 7 engineering institutions and 23 universities have more than 10,000 students, and about 60% of them have a student strength of less than 5000. In terms of faculty size, only 4 have a faculty size of more than a 1000, and over 80% have a faculty size of less than 500.

Large size leads to wider research scope and contributions, as well as interdisciplinary research. A large faculty will also lead to more research, which also increases the chances of high impact research. And a larger population of students graduating each year implies that their contribution, impact and influence in society is larger.

Funding

Research universities are costly as they have talented research faculty which have to be compensated well. And to support  their research, expensive research labs, high quality computing infrastructure, library, PhD students, travel support for conferences, etc. have to be provided, further increasing the overall expenditure per faculty.  The average per faculty expenditure in the universities ranked between 150 to 200 in THE, which is realistically the range that Indian universities can target, is about USD 0.5 Million. The average R&D expenditure per faculty in research universities in US with moderate research activity, as per Carnegie classification of 2015, is about USD $32K (for highest research activity universities it is about USD 294K).

In India, the per faculty expenditure in these  institutions, is less than USD 0.05 Million, and the research grant per faculty is about USD 5K. Even after considering the fact that manpower and some other costs are lower in India (though research equipment, international travel, digital library subscriptions, etc. all cost the same as in other countries), this level of expenditure and R&D investment is significantly lower than in universities ranked 150-200 in THE, or the research universities in the moderate research activity category in USA.

For India’s top HEIs to reach world rankings, the investments in research for them will have to increase substantially.

Conclusion

The age, size, and funding profile of top Indian institutions is significantly different than that of top 200 universities globally. While nothing can be done about age, the other two parameters – size and funding – can be changed.

For expanding the higher education system, the approach India has taken is to create new Institutions, sometimes at a hectic pace. To have presence in the global top universities, some of the established top institutions should be supported to become multidisciplinary and have a faculty size comparable to global levels. If faculty size of 50 research institutions (e.g. a few of the IITs a few central universities) can be increased to more than 1000, a dramatic change can happen in presence of Indian universities in global rankings. In addition, India can experiment with creating a few mega institutions by merging some existing universities and colleges and research labs – this is an approach Australia took a few decades ago with remarkable success, and is also the approach France is pursuing.

For top HEIs to reach world rankings, support for research for them will have to increase substantially. For this, two initiatives can help. First, the top institutions may be provided with multi-year committed research funding based on performance in the previous years – an approach UK and Australia follow with great results. Second, the research project funding by agencies needs to increase dramatically, and this funding should be accessible to all research universities – whether private or government. Many advanced countries invest over 20% of their government R&D expenditure in the university sector. In India, less than 4% of the government R&D expenditure goes to universities. The distribution of R&D funding must progressively move towards more support for research in universities.

It must be emphasized that just size and funding will not automatically ensure a position in global rankings – it will clearly require these universities (with size and funding) to have strong systems to encourage and support high quality research, recruit the best talent and promote meritocracy, build a culture of innovation and vibrancy, have strong leadership and governance, etc.

It should also be kept in mind that being in the top 200 globally is a zero sum game – for an Indian HEI to be in this group, a university currently in the group will have to drop out. Furthermore, there are many universities which are trying to improve their research profile leading to an intense competition to make it to the top league. For example, of the more than 300 research universities in US only some find place in the top 200. Similarly, there are universities in UK, Australia, France, Germany, Russia, China, Latin America, etc. which are not in the top league – and many of them are taking proactive measures to improve their research and move to the top bracket. This means, that if the desired changes do not occur at a fast pace, there is even a risk of Indian universities sliding in the rankings.

Note. This article has appeared in International Higher Education. The full version of the report is in the May 2019 issue of Current Science.

 

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Classifying Research Universities in India

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In India we have about 900 degree granting universities / institutions. A university has research and higher education as twin focus. However, not all universities emphasise both equally, and only a few develop the capability to excel in research. In every country, some universities evolve into research universities with a strong focus and culture on research, while most others are primarily focused on education. It is clearly desirable to identify the set of research universities, so they can be supported to excel in research. Such a differentiation will also help other universities – they can focus on high quality teaching at bachelor and masters level with modest expectation for research. By expecting strong performance in research from universities other than the research universities is actually doing them and education a disservice – it promotes mediocre research while teaching does not get the attention and focus it deserves.

As discussed in the earlier post (A 3-tier HE System for India), by separating out research universities from the rest, the currently 2-tier system (consisting of universities and colleges) can be converted to a 3-tier system, as envisaged in the new Education Policy. For doing this, a classification framework is needed which can help separate the research universities from the pool of universities.

Carnegie Classification is the oldest and most influential classification framework. Started in 1970, it classifies HEIs into a few broad categories, with Research Universities as a key category. For classifying research universities, a two-stage process is used by Carnegie. A simple basic criteria for a Research University is used to separate research universities from the rest – a university is defined as a Research University if it has graduated more than some number of PhDs per year in the recent past. Of a total of over 4500 HEIs considered in the 2015 classification, the number of Research Universities is about 335, or 7% of the total.

In the second stage of classification, the research universities are grouped into three sub-categories: R1 (highest research activity), R2 (higher), and R3 (moderate). The features considered for grouping into the three sub-categories include: Number of faculty members, Research manpower, Number of PhDs granted, and Research funding. These features are considered to be the most defining features of a research university and, therefore, used for the purpose of classification.

In addition to research faculty, a research university also requires research manpower. Hence, this factor is included. Globally, the main research manpower (besides faculty) is the PhD students. In advanced countries such as the US, however, a considerable number of post-doctoral staff for research may also be employed. In Carnegie Classification post-doctoral fellows are counted as research manpower. A fundamental difference between an research university and the rest is the size and importance of the PhD program in the RU. In fact, Carnegie Classification considers this feature only for basic classification of a university as a research university. Hence, size of PhD program is included as a key feature. Clearly, funding is needed to conduct research, including funds to support PhD students or employ research staff as also to develop and maintain lab equipment. Thus, the amount of research funding is a strong indicator of research activity. Hence any framework must include this. It should be pointed out that for purpose of classification, the focus is on a few key parameters that capture the level of research activity. Qualitative assessment (e.g. the quality or impact of research), which may be important for ranking, is generally not considered in classification.

For grouping into the sub-categories, using these features Carnegie computes an aggregate research activity index and a normalised (per-capita w.r.t. faculty size) research activity index. These two indices are plotted on a 2-D chart and clustering approach used to group them into three sub-categories.

While Carnegie classification is the oldest and the most influential, there have been attempts in other countries such as China, Japan, Korea, and Australia for classifying universities as research universities. Most of these efforts have been influenced by the Carnegie classification. Many of them, in addition to the features discussed above, also include research publications as a feature for classifying research universities.

There is a clear need to have a suitable classification framework to separate out Research Universities from the set of degree granting institutions that we have in India.  The research universities can then be expected to excel in research (besides doing high quality education) and their research can be suitably supported. Other universities can be expected to excel in teaching, and have modest research. We need a classification framework and a sound criteria for this.

Classifying Research Universities in India

For classifying research HEIs in India, a two-step framework similar to the Carnegie framework has been proposed recently in a paper in Higher Education journal entitled “Classification for Research Universities in India ” written by three ex-Directors/VCs (P. Jalote, founding Director IIIT-Delhi;  BN Jain, ex-VC, BITS Pilani; and S. Sopory, ex-VC, JNU). Full paper is available from the journal site ;  an earlier version of the paper is available here.

In the first step a simple basic criteria is used to separate research universities from the rest. Clearly an HEI that is focused on research must have research faculty with doctorates. Carnegie, and other classification approaches assume implicitly that all or most faculty in universities hold doctorates. In India, that is not the case – there are a large number of HEIs that have many faculty members who do not have doctorates. Consequently and necessarily, in order to identify research universities, we consider the total faculty strength, and the ratio of faculty members who have a PhD. The classification framework requires that at least 75% of the faculty have doctorates.

Since focus on research in many universities in India is a recent phenomenon, and many of the universities that are focused on research have been created only in this century (e.g. most of IITs, IISERs, etc), for such a growing system it is better to capture the strength of the PhD program in terms of the total full-time PhD student population, rather than number of PhDs graduated in last year. Since almost all full-time PhD students in India receive some form of scholarship, the number of full-time PhD students enrolled is a strong indicator of research activity as well as research investment. In the steady state this criterion can be easily converted to number of PhDs graduated.

A reasonable expectation for a research university is that each faculty member has on an average one full time PhD student working with him/her. This should be the case for a research HEI regardless of whether it has a focus on social sciences, physical sciences, engineering or any other discipline and hence is quite general. This is used as part of the basic criterion for defining a research HEI in India.

With this, the basic criteria for an HEI to be a Research HEI in India is:

% of faculty with PhD > 75% of total faculty, and

Ratio of number of full time PhD students to number of faculty is > 1.

This basic criterion can be applied to different types of HEIs, and is similar in spirit to the basic criteria used by Carnegie in that it focuses on PhD students – except that an additional test on percentage of faculty with PhD has been added – a test necessary for  India.

This criteria was applied to the top 100 institutions in two types of HEIs identified by the by the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF 2018) – Universities and Engineering. The NIRF site provides data for the 100 top HEIs in each of these two categories. The criterion was applied to these HEIs in the two categories. The  number of HEIs from the two groups that can be classified as research universities is given below:

Category of HEI No of Research Univs
University 40
Engineering 32

The total number of HEIs that satisfy the basic criteria is 68 – with 4 of these listed in both categories. This number of research universities also seems reasonable – most academics in India will agree that the total number of HEIs that can be considered as research HEIs is definitely not very large. The number is also comparable to the number of research universities in China and Korea. The list of HEIs in the two types of institutions that satisfy the criteria, along with relevant data on total number of faculty, number of faculty with PhD, and the number of full-time PhD students, are given in paper.

Of the HEIs that did not satisfy the criteria to be classified as a research HEI, vast majority did not satisfy both the components of the criteria. Of the 66 Universities that were not classified as research HEIs, 42 did not satisfy both criteria, and of the 68 Engineering HEIs, 56 did not satisfy both  conditions.

It is interesting to note that, in the top 25 engineering institutions in NIRF ranking, there are six that do not qualify as research universities. Similarly, in the top 25 universities in NIRF ranking, there are fourteen, many of them private, that do not satisfy the criteria for a research university. This is so since  a ranking framework like NIRF places strong emphasis on UG education, placement of its graduates, etc., while for being classified as a research university, only factors relevant to research are considered.

It is also worth noting that almost all the HEIs that satisfy the criteria for a research university are public institutions – 23 Universities and 28 Engineering Institutes are centrally funded, rest are funded by state government (or a combination of state and centre). This is mostly due to the fact that private institutions are self-supporting and depend solely on revenue from tuition and other student fees. Consequently, they are not able to support research at any reasonable level, nor provide for at least one full-time PhD student per faculty.

In the second step for research classification exercise, a more involved sub-grouping is done using research activity measures and applying a clustering technique to separate research universities in two groups – ones with highest research activity, and those with modest research activity.

For sub-grouping of research HEIs the main features considered are: amount of sponsored research grants, the total number of full time PhD students indicating research manpower, the total number of faculty, and the total number of publications in indexed journals. (Carnegie does not include publications in its methodology, but it is an important parameter that distinguishes more active research universities from the less active ones, and the Chinese and Korean classification approaches also consider publications in indexed journals.)

As in Carnegie, for clustering research universities into different sub-groups, aggregate research activity index and normalised (w.r.t faculty size) research activity index based on the value of the key research features of the university is computed. With these two indices, the universities are plotted on a 2-dimensional plot and clustering is done. For clustering, the standard k-means algorithm is used. Given that the number of research universities is not too large, the group of research universities is sub grouped in two clusters only – R1 which represents the HEIs with highest research activity, and R2 which represent those with modest research activity.

The data for the analysis was taken from the NIRF. The list of Research institutions that are in R1, along with the values of the normalised features, i.e. number of full time PhD students per faculty, number of Scopus indexed publications per faculty, and research funding per faculty, are given in the paper. A total of 6 universities and 8 engineering institutions were in the highest-research activity subgroup (R1).

The universities in R1 category have a high potential to make it to world rankings, particularly if their size and scope, as well as funding levels, are expanded to global levels. (In fact, in some rankings (e.g. QS 2018), institutions such as IISc, IIT Bombay, and IIT Delhi are already in the top 200.)

To strengthen research in universities, India will need to identify  a reasonable number of research universities and then support them for research excellence.  For supporting more universities so they can reach global levels,  from the R2 group, universities can be critically examined to identify their weaknesses and potentials, and be supported so they can move to R1 over time.

Some other universities that aspire to become research universities can plan for taking necessary steps to improve their faculty and PhD program and move towards satisfying the research university criteria. If some universities are supported for this, the set of research universities can expand – it is clearly possible and desirable to have 100+ research universities in India. From this set, some can migrate to R1 with time, and probably find a decent place in global rankings as well, strengthening the presence of Indian universities in the global league of research universities.

A 3-Tier Higher Education System for India

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Need for a 3-Tier HE System

A natural way to organize the higher education system is to consider it as comprising of three tiers – focusing on research and doctorate, PG and UG education, and UG education. This is how the famous California Master Plan for Higher Education was organised. This is also how the Carnegie Classification for Higher Education Institutions categorizes the Institutions in US – Research Universities, Masters colleges and Universities, Baccalaureate colleges (It has a few other categories like associate colleges, tribal, specialised, etc.)

In a 3-tier system, at the top (tier-i) are the research universities, which while having education programs at all levels, have a strong emphasis on research and perform research at an international level. They have strong PhD programs, and play a critical role in the research eco system of the country.

At the next level (tier-ii) are the Masters Universities (which we will refer to as Universities) – they focus on undergraduate education and Masters programs and a small PhD program. The mission of these Universities is higher education at Bachelors and Masters level, but at a high quality level with knowledge being provided to students is current and UpToDate. To ensure that its education indeed is “higher” and includes latest developments, they need to engage in research somewhat and so should have a small doctoral program also.

At the third level (tier-iii) are Baccalaureate institutions, which we will call colleges. Their focus is mostly on the UG programs, though they may have some masters programs also. Their programs may also be based more on well-established body of knowledge.

A differentiated system of higher education like the 3-tier system best serves a large education system and is necessary to keep education accessible (while continuing the research function expected from universities.) It can be safely assumed that the cost of education in Research Universities is a few times the cost in Universities. Reason for this is simple – research faculty that such universities employ costs more, require research infrastructure and PhD students, must have lesser teaching loads, etc – all of which add to cost. For similar reasons, cost of education in Universities is higher than in colleges. Consequently, cost of education is lowest in colleges and highest in Research Universities.

In the US, the cost of higher education in universities varies from $25K per student per year (for the top 10%) to around $7K per student per year at the lower end (for the bottom 50%).  In India, such data is not readily available but one can see some rough estimates. Many private colleges in engineering charge a yearly fee of Rs.75,000/- and are “profitable” at these levels. On the other end of the spectrum, in a top research institution like an IIT, the rough cost per student per year is upward of Rs 6 Lac per year – total expenditure (without expenditure from research projects) in an older IIT is about Rs 500 cr, with about 8000 students. And the cost of education at a typical IIIT cost is Rs 3 Lac per student per year.

It should be clear that to keep higher education accessible, role of tier-iii is critical – it should be the largest (as it is) in terms of enrollment. While a country needs and must have vibrant research universities – they cannot be the institutions to satisfy the full higher education demand – the cost to the students and society will simply be exorbitant.

Moving to a 3-Tier System

In India, our current higher education system is really a 2-tier system – Universities (which for our discussion includes IITs, NITs, IISc etc) and colleges. This stratification is not based on the education goals, but more about the ability to design education program and grant degrees – Universities are given this authority, while colleges are not. We have mixed up education scope and goals, with what aspects of education can be provided by colleges.

The new HE policy has rightly conceptualised the higher education system as a 3-Tier system, much like the one discussed above. The large HE system in India should be structured like a pyramid – good number of Research Universities (tier-i), a large number of Universities (tier-ii), and a very large number of colleges (tier-iii).

For changing the current 2-tier system to a 3-tier actions are needed on two fronts – separating tier i and tier ii universities, and empowering tier iii colleges.

Separating Tier-I and Tier-II Universities

Currently all Universities are viewed in a similar manner – doing both research and teaching. From these, we need to separate out Research Universities using some clear criterion for research activity (e.g. size of PhD faculty, PhD program, research output). This can be done without any changes in Act, Statute, or regulations – through a classification system, and then supporting the two tiers appropriately. Carnegie Classification has done this for US. That classification system was adapted for India and a recent research publication in the international journal on Higher Education  proposes a method for separating Research Universities from other universities, and for grouping the research universities by the level of their research activity (the paper is entitled “Classification for research universities in India” and is authored by three ex-Directors/Vice Chancellors – Pankaj Jalote, B.N. Jain, and Sudhir Sopory. Journal link; we will discuss this framework later in a separate post.).

With this the universities can get divided into Research Universities and Universities. The criterion used in the paper identified about 70 HEIs as Research Universities. The goal should be to have perhaps 100+ universities in this category.

These universities should then be assessed with significant weight to research and should be supported for research excellence and should aspire to be in global rankings. They should be provided multi-year block grants for research based on research performance and impact in previous years. PhD programs should be supported heavily in these places.

In US just the top 50 universities produce about 50% of the PhDs. The ratio produced by its research universities (which are less than 10% of the total) is probably over 90%. In India, a large number of PhDs are produced outside the research Universities. As research universities have the best capability for research, they are the ones that can produce the best quality PhDs in the country. So, the effort should be to ensure that the bulk of PhDs are produced in these universities, with a much smaller number being produced in other universities (which can also allow some of them to become research universities in due course.)

It is neither desirable or feasible to try to convert all universities as research universities. While over time some universities in tier ii can move to being a research university by suitable enhancing their research activities and some universities can be supported every few years for this migration, most of them should remain education focused and their mission should be to improve the quality of education at bachelors and master level and keep the educational programs in line with new knowledge emerging in different subjects and disciplines. It is here that these universities often have performed below expectation – the quality of education is not as good as should be. Their research is also modest, but they should not be expected to do a great job in this anyway.  Accreditation of such universities should give more weight to education related measures, with only a modest weight to research.

Strengthening Tier-III

It is at the Tier-III (college) level the significant changes are needed. New HEP has a great vision for this tier. The focus of this tier should remain on providing UG education at reasonable cost and to a large number of students. So, colleges should be encouraged to scale up – organically or by some colleges merging.

The main change needed is to empower them fully for the education function with ability to design and deliver courses and programs, and also assess the students learning and give grades. Without these empowerments, education cannot be of high quality, as learning outcomes, instruction, and assessment are all intricately tied and must be handled together by the college. The model of a university designing a program and courses and doing assessment, and colleges doing instruction is fundamentally flawed and anachronistic – no other region in the world now uses this model.

This shift towards empowering colleges will have to be carefully strategised and deployed. For example a few colleges can be encouraged to form a consortium to build capability to design and refine curriculum and courses (e.g. having academic councils, senate, external review, etc), and then may be empowered by the affiliating university to design and deliver, and assess students’ learning, in some courses. Initially they may be given this responsibility for elective courses or some courses that require tighter integration of assessment and teaching. Later, based on their performance and student feedback, accreditation etc., they may be empowered more by the affiliating university. The eventual goal being full empowerment of design and delivery of education and assessment.

For this, while desirable, it is not important that colleges get degree granting powers. In the initial stages it will suffice if the degree continues to be granted by the affiliating university, but also specifies the college where the student was enrolled, like a co-branded degree, to ensure that the role of the college in education is clearly specified. In due course, some of the colleges that become very large (either on their own or through mergers) may also be granted university status (at tier-ii level), if they satisfy some clearly laid out criteria (e.g. on nature of faculty, on their systems, etc) for a university.

For the changes needed for Tier III, the set of all affiliating universities may be grouped together and changes driven through them – suitably supported by regulation and support. Without the support of these universities, given that they are empowered by their Acts, it will be very hard to make progress.

Research in Higher Education

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After completing 10 years as founding Director of IIIT-Delhi last year, this year I am on Sabbatical. During the Sabbatical, besides taking long breaks for travel, family and friends, I have decided to work on Higher Education rather than in Computer Science – the area in which I have done my PhD and in which I was a faculty for over 20 years. I hope to therefore post more regularly during this year  in this blog.

During my initial studies, what surprised me is the amount of published literature that is there on higher education. There are many top quality international journals on Higher Education, many universities have research centers on higher education, and, of course, there are a huge number of books on various aspects of HE – e.g. some discuss foundations and philosophical issues relating to HE, some which analyse data to get insights and stitch together a cogent picture, some based on experience of respected leaders who, some on history and evolution of higher education, some on future of HE, and a range of other areas.

The breadth of the research surprised me – research areas include Doctoral Training, Financing of higher education, Education and learning, role of HE in innovation and economic development, research and its impact, changing nature of academia, sociology of academia, etc. And there is the whole area of Effective Teaching and Learning in HE – which is an important and a stand-alone topic – to be discussed further in another post.

It was a bit of an eye opener for me that higher education itself can be, and is, a subject of research. So, in countries like UK, USA, Australia, which have highly reputed and large higher education systems, there are research centers working on higher education. Let me give some examples of major centers from these countries.

Australia: Centre for the Study of Higher Education – Melbourne, and Centre for Higher Education Development – Monash, etc.

UK: Centre for Higher Education Studies – UCL, Centre for Comparative and International Research in Education (CIRE) – University of Bristol, Centre for Comparative and International Education Research – Oxford,  Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research – University of Sussex, etc.

USA: Center for 21st Century Universities – George Tech,  Center for Studies in Higher Education – UC Berkeley, The Stanford Institute for Higher Education Research (SIHER) –  Stanford, Pullias Center for higher education – USC, Center for Comparative and Global Studies in Education – University at Buffalo, Center for Innovation & Research in Graduate Education – University of Washington, Center for International Higher Education – Boston College,  Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education (CSHPE), University of Michigan, Center for the Study of Higher Education – University of Arizona, Center for the Study of Higher Education (CSHE), The Pennsylvania State University, etc.

As we can see, most of these research centers are inside a university, which is itself engaged in higher education and research, which are the main objects of research in higher education. This is how it should be – research centers on higher education should be housed in HEIs whose main mission is education and research, so the university itself can provide the data and information and platform for analysis and research in higher education. (Stand alone and separate institutions for HE research are also useful – there is generally one or two in these countries.)

In India, I cannot think of any major higher education university / institution which has a wide range of education and research programs that has a research center on higher education. (We do have NUEPA – which was a stand alone center for providing analysis and data for policy making to the government, which is now a deemed university.)

It has since dawned on me that while we have one of the largest HE system in the world, HE remains a highly under-researched field. While as governments (central and state), and as society, we invest so much on education, we have made hardly any investment in HE research. And unlike science and engineering, where knowledge is global and regardless of where it is created it can be used anywhere, research in HE is by its very nature contextual – the HE system of India is like no other country’s system, and the needs and evolution is very India-specific and not following trajectory of any other country. So, if we are to better understand our past in HE so we are better prepared with research and analysis for improving the efficiency, effectiveness, and reach of our HE system, we need to do serious research in it, and cannot rely only on global research in HE.

For this, we must establish a few higher education research centers in different parts of the country in reputed research focused universities / institutes, and charge these centers to build research competency and suitable research manpower, and do research on HE in the country, as well as the global HE context and trends. We invest so much in HE – we must invest a few percent of that on HE research to get better returns on our HE investment and to protect our future.

Strengthening the R&D Ecosystem

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Higher education is at the core of the R&D ecosystem in a country. In India, research in universities / institutions has not been supported as strongly as in other countries, and that is one of the reasons why its universities do not compete well globally. I am giving here an article I wrote with Prof. Jitendra Malik, Arthur J Chick Professor at UC Berkeley for Time of India some years back. The article is even more relevant today, as there is a much stronger desire and push to have some of our universities reach the global rankings.

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Ideate and Innovate: The Weak R&D System in India must be fixed if we are to compete in the global economy (with Jitendra Malik), Times of India

R&D in India was earlier not really tied to the economy as the industry did not really need R&D. Now with integration of Indian economy with the global economy, there is dependence of some segments of economy on R&D. And in future, the value of R&D to India will only increase, as countries that have the ability to innovate through R&D will be better placed on tapping new opportunities and compete in the global market place.

Due to this changed scenario, there is a need to strengthen our R&D ecosystem. R&D is globally done in three types of organizations – Universities, Government owned labs, and labs of companies.  The last is outside the purview of public policy (except perhaps fiscal incentives), but the first two are influenced a great deal by the Government policies and investment. The world experience is that out of the two, except for some focused defense, space etc. related R&D, the efficiency and effectiveness of the University is higher. Most research output comes from Universities, and most of the Nobel Prize winners work in academia. Furthermore, besides the direct R&D output, universities also produce PhDs and Masters which forms the main resource for the corporate as well as government research centers (and, of course, for the Universities themselves.) It is clear that universities form the nucleus of the R&D ecosystem, and unless this nucleus does well, it is not possible to build a strong R&D ecosystem in a nation.

In the US, which has the most vibrant R&D ecosystem, importance of Universities was clearly articulated in the seminal and highly influential report in late 1940s by Vannevar Bush, which led to the creation of National Science Foundation in the US. Over the years there has been a dramatic increase in Federal funding to R&D in academia, and now of about $110 Billion Federal expenditure in R&D, academia gets the lion’s share of more than 30% while Government agencies get about 25% (private sector gets about 20%, and rest goes to other categories.)

In India, the critical importance of R&D in academia is not appreciated and the investment on R&D in universities is extremely inadequate – of the Central Government spend on R&D, only about 5% goes to higher education, while government bodies spend about 90% of the expenditure! This lack of research funding to higher education is a key factor in decline of the erstwhile good universities to teaching-only places, and the continued weakness of our R&D eco system. If India is to build a strong R&D eco-system, R&D in Universities must be heavily supported.

Large investments in R&D in universities must be supplemented by methods that will push the Universities to excel. And the best method for this is the competition. Consequently, the second area which needs reform is strengthening of competition at all levels in the R&D setup. It is known, that competition gets the best out of business organizations. It is not fully appreciated that it is also extremely important for Universities. In the US, competition has been built at all levels. There is competition to get good students – all the main universities vie for them and compete to get them. There is strong competition to attract the best faculty – universities go out of their way to get good faculty and vigorously compete, even with corporate research labs (incidentally, universities often win in this competition with private labs). And there is strong competition for research funding. For the NSF research grants both private and public universities compete, and the competition is really tough today – upward of 90% of the proposals are not funded. The situation with DARPA and NIH (the other major agencies for research funding) is not much different.

Contrast with the system in India. There is little competition for getting research funding – the Govt labs simply get their funds, and for research funding to academia, there is little competition for the few places that do decent research, like IITs, IIITs, IISc, etc, as other places are in poor shape for conducing R&D. There is some competition among IITs for PG students and faculty, but there is limited competition from outside. Now with the emergence of corporate research labs in India, an external competition is emerging for recruiting faculty in some sectors.

Competition among universities can be strengthened considerably by having independent and rigorous evaluation of Universities on a regular basis using proper frameworks that compares Indian Universities and their departments with each other, as well as with universities across the world. Rigorously done independent evaluation (with perhaps rewards like government grants tied to it) will generate a sense of competition between the universities, and if done in a proper manner, can also provide universities some directions for improvement. Establishing a center like the Center for Measuring University Performance in the US can be a major step in this direction.

It should be clear that supporting competitive spirit among universities will necessarily require them to have much more autonomy and control – an organization cannot compete if it does not have basic tools like deciding compensation, incentive structure, etc.  (Here the argument that since the government provides most of the funding and hence must exercise control does not hold – universities in US, Europe, Singapore, Australia etc are heavily funded by the government, yet they are very autonomous in deciding their salaries, their incentives, and processes.)

It is essential that we build a large and vibrant R&D eco-system in the country. This requires universities to be at the epicenter of the research eco system, which requires a large number of research universities that are autonomous and are well funded for R&D. It also requires an independent and rigorous evaluation framework be built for assessing university performance, which will push universities to compete and provide the much needed drive for improvement.

Jitendra Malik, Arthur J Chick Professor, University of California Berkeley and Pankaj Jalote, Director, IIIT-Delhi. Views are personal.

Governance Model of HEIs in India

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Autonomy of Educational Institutions is essential for an higher educational institute (HEI) to achieve excellence. But, of course, autonomy is not sufficient. If autonomy of governance is to help move towards excellence, and not degenerate into hiding mediocrity behind autonomy, it is essential that governance structure for HEI should be solid with suitable checks and balances.

There are two broad governance models in India – one of them is a creation of the British, who wanted no check on the powers of their administrators. This model still continues, and effects are not very good, as records of so many universities show. A few years ago, Prof. G. Barua (Director of IIT Guwahati at that time) and myself had written an article in TOI on it – I am giving this article below – its thesis remains fully relevant.

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Learning How To Teach – Getting the governance model for our universities right is a must for boosting the education sector (appeared in Times of India Editorial Page), by Pankaj Jalote and Gautam Barua

 

There has been considerable discussion and debate on autonomy of educational Institutions. But very little attention has been paid about the Governance in Educational Institutes. There are two main governance models that are prevalent– one is what we will call “the IIT model” (IM) which prevails in all IITs, IIMs, and many other Institutes, and the other is “the University Model” (UM), which is employed in most Universities.

First it should be clarified that institutions under both these models are universities in that they can give degrees,  etc., and an University can adopt IM and an engineering Institute can follow UM.

In both the models, there is a chief executive, called Director in IM and Vice Chancellor in UM, who  is supported by Deans, Heads, Registrars, etc. There is a Board which is the principle executive body –the Board of Governors (BOG) in IM, and the  Executive Council (EC) in UM. There is an academic body which looks after academic governance –often called the Academic Council in UM and Academic Senate in IM.

A sound principle of governance is that in critical matters the recommending body and accepting body are separate. This separation is important to keep some form of check on the recommending body. In an educational Institute, for most administrative matters, the recommending body is often the executive, and the final accepting body is the Board/EC. And it is here the two models differ fundamentally – in IM the Board is chaired by an external person, while in UM, the EC is chaired by the Vice Chancellor him/herself.

With the EC and the Executive both headed by the VC, the VC has far more in his control than in the IIT system. This is perhaps a legacy of the British Raj, which works well if the VC is visionary, as was the case in early times when we had towering VCs like Dr. Radhakrishnan.  However, it can seriously damage a university if the VC is malleable or not competent.  In our country we can be sure that appointment of VCs will sometimes be political which can put people not competent for the job in the top position. In other words, if we take the university over a period of multiple decades, we can be almost sure that there will be some periods in which it would be headed by a not very competent VC who is a political appointee.

One crucial area where this can show up is in faculty selections. In both the models, recommendation for faculty selection is generally made by a selection committee, which has experts as members, and is  chaired by the Director/Vice Chancellor. However, the power to actually make appointments rests with the Board, which a Board often delegates to its Chairman for speedy acceptance. This weakness opens the VC to political pressure for faculty appointments, as it is the VC who effectively decides on appointments. In IM, as the recommendations have to be accepted by the Chairman, political pressure is harder to apply. And nothing hurts an academic institution more than appointment of poor quality faculty – even a few appointments can help mediocrity to set in, as a faculty member may be with the University for 30 years. The negative message it sends out will dissuade good candidates from applying, thereby creating a snowball effect, from which it can be very hard to recover.  This is one of the key reasons why good faculty candidates simply do not apply to universities that are perceived as supporting mediocrity (despite the fact that the salaries across Institutes are same in India.) And in a 10 year period, a VC can easily appoint a quarter of the faculty to fill vacancies created by retirement, and new posts. This system also creates problems in other areas such as awarding contracts, etc.

Interestingly, this aspect also encourages internal politics in UM, which can make it harder for well meaning VCs to implement desired changes. For example, a VC, as the chief executive, is usually the best person to defend a proposal before the EC, which is the final accepting body. But since he is the Chairman also, he often cannot do so strongly, and, in fact, has to often rely on the Registrar to defend the proposal. As the VC is himself not making the proposal, EC members, many of whom are internal faculty members, are able to lobby against the proposals more easily (and in the process indirectly criticize the VC himself on his face!)

It is not an accident that over the last fifty years, the institutions that have enhanced or preserved their reputation are mostly the ones that follow IM – IITs, IIMs, IISc, etc. Examples of Institutes that were once great but have declined in stature over the years are often universities, including many which were once highly reputed temples of learning.

In modern India, the governance of Universities should reflect the modern and tested systems of Governance. The IIT model  is more robust and can better handle occasional “bad appointments” at the top position. As India increases its Universities, to prevent them from becoming mediocre with time, it is important that they are created with this model, rather than the University model.

Insightful Suggestions by Chancellor and Chief Guest in IIIT-Delhi Convocation

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IIIT-Delhi held its 7th convocation on Sat, Aug 25. This was the last one for me as Director, and the first one we held in the 500 seater auditorium in our new Seminar Complex (a huge building with seminar rooms, class rooms, labs, etc, as well as one full floor of incubation center.) In my address to students, I talked about some lessons that are embedded in the IIIT-D’s decade long journey – the previous post gives a few of these.

IIIT-D’s Chancellor, Hon’ble LG of Delhi, and Chief Guest, Rajan Anandan of Google, gave excellent speeches. One point from each of their speeches really stuck a chord with me. I think they are useful for all – so will like to share them here.

Hit the pause button occasionally in life. Hon’ble Chancellor, in his speech (video of which is here) observed that in the world today everyone is running. All of us want to be in Fast Forward mode for life – achieve everything in a shorter time, cover more ground faster, …. He advised that we should also learn to “hit the pause button” occasionally – and use the pause to reflect, absorb, travel, etc. which can help us grow more and also help us do course correction that may be needed.

Such a wonderful advise. And how true – we are indeed all running to do/achieve more. Even with a noble/higher cause, people are driven to achieve or contribute more. But this speed will normally push the person to continue what he/she is doing – just do it faster and more efficiently. It does not allow for a rethink or reflection to change directions or do something else – and in the long life that most of us have, this lack of ability to change direction or purpose can be actually sub-optimal even for what one can contribute or achieve. And this relentless drive certainly makes the life less enjoyable, and the life journey less happier.

I often advise students to take a semester off (and in IIIT-Delhi we have regulations to do it easily) and explore life, or India or world, or go and work for a company…. Though there are some students who indeed do this, there is a strong desire and a clear pressure on students to finish their BTech in 4 years – parents also have this  expectation. Somehow, students are not able to see that starting the long life of working professional a few months earlier is of no consequence – though taking a semester off (i.e. pause) to explore can make the university life much richer experience.

As it turns out, next year I am also on Sabbatical. And I had decided not to work for any one organisation during this – but instead visit many places and engage with different groups. I hope to read, travel, connect with people, and write during this Sabbatical, without any “job requirement” for doing it. This will be my pause. This advise helped me put my plans for Sabbatical on a more solid principle.

People are remembered for their successes, not their failures. Mr Rajan Anandan gave an excellent speech (video is here) which connected excellently with the students – besides many examples from his life, he also pointed out how speeches given in convocation are forgotten. There is one point he mentioned which I found extremely insightful, and which helped me in clarifying my own thoughts and see things in a better perspective. I am mentioning it here – a small attempt to make sure that it is not forgotten easily.

He made an observation, which is also a lesson, which is so true, yet many of us do not think of it. He said that people are remembered for their successes, not their failures – it is us who remember our failures not others, who remember people by their successes. And he supported it by saying that there are many things he did in his life in which he failed – but no one remembers them – all remember him for the good things he has done or achieved.

This is so true in academics. Students are remembered not by the instructor of the courses in which they got a C or a D, but are remembered by instructors of those classes in which they got an A+ or did excellently, or by faculty with whom they did some exciting project. And it is these faculty members who give strong recommendation letters for the students, often without regards for grades students may have gotten in other courses. But many students, chasing a good CGPA, optimize by getting a decent grade in all courses, rather than excelling in some subjects (which will also make them much stronger in those subjects.)

Similarly, for contributions by researchers and faculty – most faculty are remembered and defined by the good books they may have written that are used widely, or great papers that are cited heavily, or technologies they may have developed that got used by companies, etc. Almost by definition, no one remembers the papers / books the researcher/ faculty member wrote that very few people read, and consequently no researcher or academic is defined by them.

Remembering our failures is done mostly by us. We sometimes let them become bigger that they really are, and feel bad over them or have regrets for a long time. If we realize that in the larger scheme of things, failures do not matter and few people give them much thought (except perhaps nagging relatives or negative colleagues who may be looking for opportunities to pull one down). We are defined by our successes – what we achieved and what we contributed. And others also notice these more (even the envious person gets envious due to successes.)

This perspective I personally found deeply insightful and helped me put some things in better perspective. During the IIIT-Delhi journey, there were setbacks every now and then. I often worried about these and worried endlessly on what I could do to revert them or avoid them…. For example, if a good faculty member left, I will feel really bad and it will pull me down for sometime. I now realize that the better perspective is that as long as the Institute is moving in the positive direction towards its vision and growing at a healthy pace, it does not really matter if some people leave or some setbacks occur – as both are inevitable. We just have to learn from them, and move on…..

I would like to add a personal view on this. The above holds for professional life. In personal life and interactions, it is probably the exact opposite – friends and relatives will often remember the things you did not do or things you did which offended them. They are likely to forget all the good you may have done before that. I.e. personal relationships often, unfortunately, get defined by the negative interactions and experiences, rather than the positive ones.

 

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