The New Education Policy (NEP) has Great Suggestions for Higher Education

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It is heartening that the government has accepted the recommendations of the New Education Policy (NEP). I had studied the higher education (HE) portion of the NEP quite well when researching for my upcoming book (“Building Research Universities in India“, to be published by SAGE, end of this year). I was very impressed with the vision in this NEP and this policy, if implemented in letter and spirit, can be a Great Leap Forward for the HE system in India. I was not sure if the government will accept it, as it suggests complete autonomy of universities, and we have seen how bureaucracy dislikes giving autonomy to any government supported body. It is heartening that the NEP has been accepted. I will discuss a few of the key changes briefly here – hope to do a few more posts on NEP and HE later.

The NEP rightly has grouped the higher educational institutions (HEIs) in three categories – research universities, teaching universities, and colleges. These are the natural levels in a HE system, and are the main ones in the oldest and most well-known framework for classifying HEIs – the Carnegie Classification. I have been arguing for such a differentiated system for some time – see the earlier post on the 3-tier HE system for India.

Within this structure, for colleges, the system of affiliation will stop, and each college will become an autonomous college or part of the parent university. This is a welcome change – many people have argued for it for a few decades now.  I wrote an article on this in Times of India many years ago, which pointed out how outdated this model is, and exists only in India (and neighbouring countries), and how it is unsuitable for high quality education – it can only deliver mediocre quality. This change will ensure that course design, instruction, and assessment are done together within each HEI, as they should be for imparting good quality education. Of course, colleges will have to rise to the challenge ahead.

Of the 1000+ degree granting institutions, the NEP suggests that about 100 should be identified as research universities in the near future. (And in time increase this to 200+). These will focus strongly on research and PhD program, besides having high quality education at bachelor and masters levels. The rest of them will be teaching universities, which will focus on delivering high quality education. As high quality education needs involvement of faculty in research, these universities are also expected to do modest amount of research and have a small PhD program.

This differentiation is extremely important, as without articulating this, all universities try to do both research and education, and not having the resources or the quality of faculty that is needed for high quality research, end up being mediocre in both.

How the research universities will be separated out has not been specified, and will require a sound classification framework like the Carnegie Classification. This classification exercise must be done transparently through a sound framework which identifies a few important measures of research and uses them to identify the research universities. In an earlier post, I have discussed how the Carnegie framework has been adapted for India in a paper published in Higher Education last year by three ex-Directors/VCs, including me. The framework identified about 70 HEIs from the top 200 in NIRF as research universities. With minor relaxation in the criteria, about 100 univs can be identified, as desired by NEP, which can then be supported for research excellence.

NEP has rightly identified research funding for the HEIs as inadequate and has proposed establishing a National Research Foundation (NRF) which will have significant funds for supporting research in four areas – technology, science, social science, arts and humanities. The NEP also suggests that the different ministries should set aside some budget for research, increase investment in research, and enhance linkages of HEIs with economy and society.

For growing HE, India has taken the path of creating small and specialised institutions. So, we have HEIs in Engineering, in Medicine, Law, Social Sciences, Business, etc. In the modern world where the main challenges are multidisciplinary, for high quality innovation and research, it is important to have multiple disciplines in the same university – for example, having engineering, social sciences, law, and management in one university can truly help in innovation suitable for society and businesses. Similarly, if we have some HEIs which have both engineering college and medical college, it can take up innovation in the health more easily by having researchers in both available on the same campus.

NEP expects all research universities to become multidisciplinary, each having up to 25000 students each. It remains to be seen how this will be achieved. If the existing top institutions and universities can expand in size and add more disciplines, it will provide them with the scale and diversity needed to be included in the world’s top  HEIs. In an analysis I had done earlier of our top 200 HEIs and the top 200 in the THE ranking, one of the critical differences that came up was the size of the institutions – in India the vast majority have fewer than 500 faculty and fewer than 5000 students, while in the top 200 in the world, very few are in this category, and over 90% have more than 1000 faculty and more than 10000 students.

On the degrees front, NEP has allowed 3yr as well as 4 yr degrees, and that a degree can have a major and a minor or two majors. This is a welcome change, and can lead to many innovations in education – we can see degrees like Economics with Computing, or Psychology with Cognitive neuroscience, Maths with Computing, etc., or even Music or English with Computing (computing tools have entered both of these areas) emerging. IIIT-Delhi had taken a lead in interdisciplinary education, but it focused on BTech degree only as it provided 4 years – now universities can offer degrees in sciences and humanities etc in a 4 year format, which will allow for a more rigorous education.

There are fundamental changes recommended in the governance of HEIs with the goal of providing full autonomy. Autonomy has been argued by many thinkers for quite some time – an earlier article in Times of India, focused on key aspects of autonomy , and highlighted the need for an HEI to appoint its own Chief Executive through its Board. NE suggests recommends that the chief executive (Director or Vice Chancellor) be selected and appointed by the board. This is a major change, as currently, the chief executive is appointed by the government and is therefore answerable to it, and not the Board. The NEP suggests autonomous and self-perpetuating boards, with a very limited representation of the government or government appointees. With this, the Board can become a body which truly represents the interests of the HEI and is accountable to the stakeholders of the HEI. These are measures that already exist in a public Institution like IIIT-Delhi, where the Board is self perpetuating and which selects and appoints the Director.

At the national level, the NEP has suggested that there be one regulator for education, and has suggested strengthening of the accreditation, which will be by an independent body. Similarly, funding for education is to be given by a different body.  This allows the regulator to squarely focus on the quality of systems for education and research in an HEI. This move is in line with the systems in countries like UK and Australia.

There are many other excellent recommendations for HE in the NEP, which together suggest a visionary and forward looking path. Look for further posts later.

Future of Universities

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The previous note discusses how education will change after covid. The focus was on how existing education programs in existing universities will change. In this note, we take it further and discuss the future of universities and colleges.

Online education was growing even before Covid happened – with Covid, as many more students and universities have gotten familiar with online, the speed of adoption may increase. With a wider adoption of online education, many have predicted a rise in online degree programs, leading to only the top universities surviving, with the rest closing or just existing. The main argument behind such a future scenario is that top universities will continue attracting students who can pay their high fee as such students will pay for the high quality campus experience in addition to high quality education which such universities provide. However, the rest of the universities that provide modest quality education at a high cost, will face a challenge from online programs which promise to offer decent quality education (as courses will be taught by the best faculty) at a modest cost.  Hence the decline of “other” universities/colleges.

I believe that the future scenario can be different – and the rest of the universities and colleges can also thrive. For discussion on this topic, we will consider three types of education programs (focusing only on undergraduate education for now):

  1. Programs in research universities with highly talented research faculty
  2. Programs in other universities/colleges
  3. Online degree programs

Programs in research universities will continue to thrive as they offer qualitatively a different type of education. Some of the reasons for this are: the type of projects given in courses or outside are likely to be better, students get an exposure to research and possibility of actual research experience, the learning from peers is better as the set of peers is highly selective and often ambitious and motivated, a richer and wider range of student activities given the peer group, exposure to international students and researchers (which are always present in research universities), etc. Due to these types of reasons, the overall quality of education and experience these universities provide cannot be matched by the other two. Hence, those who can afford, will continue to try to get admission in these research universities. Hence universities in category 1 have no real threat from online education in foreseeable future.

It is the second category of universities that is considered to be under threat from online programs. Let us examine this further. The main value proposition of online program is that as the courses are taught by the best faculty from anywhere in the world, the quality of education will be good or at least fair. And the cost will be substantially lower than on-campus programs. This combination of decent quality education and lower cost, is the main value proposition, which, it is believed, will attract students away from universities in category 2, which provide an average quality education at a high cost.

How will the online programs provide better quality education at low cost? To keep the cost low, they will have to rely on courses delivered by external faculty, without using local faculty resources (a major component in the cost of education.) However, it is well known that having online lectures delivered by the best expert does not in itself lead to better learning. For using courses created by external faculty for education, the issue of student motivation and assessment has to be addressed, as it is known that students find it hard to complete such courses, and the potential for using dishonest methods is high. To result in good quality learning, the online teaching will have to be supported properly,  and good assessment has to be done. (Assessment includes assignments, labs, reports, presentation, as well as exams and tests.) And an online degree provider has to do this while having minimal faculty – as that is only way the cost of such a course will be lower.

For effective consumption of externally created courses without having suitable faculty, innovative approaches will have to be evolved to ensure learning by students and reasonable assessment. As of now, there does not seem to be any widely accepted methods for doing this. Hopefully some will emerge as more universities experiment with it. If such approaches do not emerge, then the value proposition of online programs breaks – while they will be low cost, the quality of education will also be low. So, such programs will provide an option for those who cannot afford the university education, but there is no substantial threat to the programs by universities in category 2.

Let us assume that through research and experimentation, effective methods for consuming externally created courses are evolved, which do not require much additional cost. If this happens, then indeed online education programs can provide a good quality education at reasonable cost.

If this is the case then the universities in category 2 can also adopt these methods, and have many of their courses taught through externally created online courses. By doing so, they can reduce their cost also for these courses. Then, the courses it will teach in campus through its own faculty will be those where the student learning is as good or better than the online counterparts, or those which simply are not available online. That is, for these courses, the university will provide better learning to students than online possibilities. It should be clear that this blended approach will provide a better quality education than online programs.  And the cost of such on campus programs in these universities can also be reduced from high to, say, medium, though it will not be as low as online programs.

If universities in category 2 can reinvent themselves by opting for a blended approach to education, then a student looking for a lower cost education, has to choose between doing these online courses for an online degree, or doing many of the same online courses while being in a college, where there will be some local support, and, of course, some regular in-class courses and on-campus activities. Between the two, the choice for most students will be to go for universities, provided they can, by large scale use of online courses, keep the cost of education in control.  (This assumes that these universities can lower their cost by reducing their faculty costs, which will be challenging. However, if competition from online programs becomes a real threat then they may have no other choice.)

So in future, we will see a continued demand for the universities in category 1 by students where the cost of education is high, largely due to their high quality faculty resources and engagement in research. As they are strong in research, they will also continue getting research funds, further helping them. These universities will have minimal impact by success of online programs.

On the other hand, if online programs succeed in delivering high quality learning, other universities in category 2 can feel the pressure. Their pressure will be accentuated as they may not be able to raise resources through research projects, and their masters programs will face even a stronger challenge. However, they can also remain in demand, if they can lower the cost of education by opting for blended models, while still providing a fine on-campus experience. So, universities, which form the largest number of  continuously running old institutions, will continue to exist and thrive even with the success of online education programs.

University Education in the Post-Covid World

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This note is a part of a special article written collaboratively by over 20 experts in education from across the world. The special report “Reimagining the new pedagogical possibilities for universities post-Covid-19”, eds. by Michael A. Peters and Fazal Rizvi will be published by Educational Philosophy and Theory journal in a few months.

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Covid-19 forced many universities across the world to shift from being fully f2f (face-to-face) class to fully online classes. For going online, a variety of tools like Zoom or Adobe connect were used to deliver lectures which students can attend from anywhere. In India, this did not happen widely as even the top institutes like IITs found that many of their students do not have access to laptops or good internet in their homes, and as movement was disallowed in lockdown, access to an internet café was also not an option.

It is, however, clear that (undergraduate) students do not like the online education as compared to f2f, campus-based education. There had been some evidence of this even earlier, but this forced online lecturing has resulted in many students complaining “why they had to pay so much if education had to be online”. Indeed a class action suit has been launched in the US against many universities, asking for refunds. In India also the general feedback is that students do not perceive online education highly.

Hence, the question going forward for universities is not just how to make online teaching more effective for learning (the question that was most asked when online was launched), but also about the perception of online learning in terms of value. The discussion here is primarily for undergraduate programs.

Students benefit from a university education in two main dimensions – self growth and professional development. For the first, the on-campus experience is the key – in fact a good deal of the self-growth happens outside of the formal curriculum through the social and other engagements in an on-campus model. Any good university provides a rich campus environment for such a growth. Professional development is the focus of the formal curriculum. Here, online mode is useful for some types of learning. But even for professional development, online mode is of limited value in developing graduate attributes like team work, communication ability, consensus building, etc. So we can say that regular f2f, campus-based education has an important role in the overall education of the student which cannot be replaced by online teaching, though online models can indeed be useful for some aspects of the learning a university provides.

Given the experience during covid lockdowns, Post-covid, universities will want to be prepared for online delivery of courses. However, given the limitations of online approaches, universities are likely to opt for blended approach for education, keeping in mind the learning goals as well as value perceptions. The blending will happen in a few ways:

  • Students will still be enrolled in a brick and mortal university, but some of the courses they take in a semester may be offered online, while the others will remain f2f.
  • Even with online courses, a blended model is likely to be used – some MOOC style asynchronous lecturing, complemented with some weekly synchronous interaction (f2f or online) – this maybe discussion like in a flipped classroom, or may be summarizing the lectures for the week, etc. Some aspects of assessment will also be f2f, like projects, major exams, etc.
  • For courses being offered in classroom mode, some students may be allowed to attend them online (i.e. the lecture and presentation will be streamed live)

This means that universities have to gear up to provide online education also –  MOOC-style lectures, synchronous online teaching, and streaming of live lectures. The last option is a straightforward use of technology to have a distributed class, which reduces the need for classroom infrastructure. We do not discuss the impact of this mode, and focus on the first option, which coupled with the second option to help improve learning from online courses, offers maximum potential of changing university education.

Once universities adopt a blended model where some courses may be offered online, then the entire repository of online courses available becomes a resource – the university does not have to necessarily create its own courses.  Using externally created courses may not be used by the top universities of the world who may want to offer their own courses to their students, they will be useful for many universities, particularly those which have limited faculty resources. How the externally developed online courses are used is where universities in India, particularly those who are currently not able to offer good quality courses due to lack of faculty, can benefit the most, and which can decide the impact of online courses on university education.

So far the use of externally developed courses for credit has been limited – despite them being available for quite some time now. Much of the literature seems to indicate that universities are generally both producers and consumers of online courses, and are generally consuming online courses that they themselves create. The covid crisis may provide the impetus to use them, as online teaching and learning becomes more widely accepted, and as regulations for their use become more flexible.

However, for using externally created courses for credit, the issue of student motivation and assessment has to be addressed, if academic credits are to be given, as it is known that students find it hard to complete such courses, and the potential for using dishonest methods is high. There are different ways to address these. For example for improving learning and keeping the student on track for completing the course, having a doubt clearing synchronous session every week by the local instructor (f2f in class or online), peer-engagement through online tools as well as through f2f discussions, etc. For ensuring fair assessment, the assessment provided by the online course can be augmented by some separate assignments that are submitted to the local instructor, some proctored exams, etc.

In this approach, essentially, the f2f interactions (and other synchronous approaches) are being used to make online courses more effective. This is quite the opposite of the approach where online lectures are used to support in-class teaching – something which many universities currently use (e.g. by having taped lectures available for students.) Note that while it is desirable that the local instructor has reasonable expertise in the subject of the online course, this approach can also work reasonably well even if the local instructor is not an expert but is interested in the subject and is knowledgeable enough to guide the students, conduct assessments, etc. (If faculty with expertise in the subject exist, then most likely the university and the faculty member will prefer teaching the course, and use online material to support.)

If the university using an externally created course does not have suitable local instructors for the course it wants its students to take, then the approaches mentioned above may not be feasible. This is likely to be the case with many universities in India as well as across the world – most universities will not have very high quality faculty, or faculty which are well versed with some subjects, particularly in emerging areas and topics.  This is also where the maximum potential of the online courses exist – ability of a university to teach students in a range of subjects where teaching is done by the top experts in the world, and where local instructors on the subjects are not available. That is, the most potential of online courses is when universities can be effective consumers of online courses.

For effective consumption without having suitable instructors, innovative approaches will have to be used to ensure learning by students and reasonable assessment. For example, using peer discussion for doubt clearing, peer grading of assignments, perhaps taking help from external faculty (maybe the creator of the course) for doubt clearing sessions, assigning TAs who are required to have done the online course earlier and then have them coordinate peer-discussions, assessments, checking if the students have submitted online assignments, etc., augmenting assessment through term papers or projects (which can be peer evaluated).  Another possibility is to motivate some faculty who has expertise in some related area to host an online course in a subject for a few years – the faculty can gain sufficiently knowledge, for example, by attending the online lectures, to help in guiding the course and the TAs assigned for it.

Interestingly, few studies have been reported on how to effectively and efficiently consume externally created courses such that learning outcomes are achieved. (One such approach of consuming externally created courses without assigning a faculty with expertise in the subject championed by IIIT-Delhi is described in an earlier blog note .)  There is a clearly a need to experiment more with effective consuming of online courses and develop suitable approaches. If many universities in India and other countries move towards consuming externally created online courses for providing academic credit, we will see some innovative approaches emerging to address the challenges in such a use, which may provide a boost to online course consumption and improve the quality of education in universities that have a shortage of qualified faculty.

MTech in Engineering and Education – for developing engineering faculty

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There is shortage of quality teachers in India. Engineering colleges is where bulk of engineering education occurs in the country – of the appx 15Lac engineers produced each year, perhaps more than two-thirds get their education in the affiliated colleges (there are over 40,000 affiliated colleges in India.)

It is well known that the quality of faculty in most of these colleges is mediocre. Unless the quality of faculty in these colleges is improved, the quality of education imparted by these colleges cannot be improved.

As the previous note discussed, a good faculty should have good subject matter expertise (SME), and good understanding of effective teaching techniques (ETT). Subject matter expertise is generally highest with those who have obtained the highest degree in the discipline, namely, the PhD.  However, PhD graduates in different engineering disciplines from decent institutions do not generally join colleges as faculty, as they want to pursue careers that also provide opportunities to do research.  Also, the PhD program is individual mentorship based approach, which just cannot be scaled up too much. So increasing the supply rapidly to provide faculty to colleges (and other teaching focused universities) in sufficient numbers is not possible.

Colleges are teaching focused institutions and research is not one of their missions. While it will be good to have some faculty who have PhDs, having PhDs as faculty in colleges is neither necessary nor feasible – colleges generally cannot afford decent quality PhDs. And most colleges focus largely on undergraduate education, for which PhD level expertise is not necessary. For these colleges, good quality MTech graduates will provide sufficient subject matter expertise.

The current MTech programs, however, focus on building the SME in the discipline – so most of the courses and projects the student does are in different areas of the discipline. So an MTech graduate, while developing decent SME, does not develop any capabilities in ETT. Also, as the focus of an MTech is on building only the technical strengths, the expectation of the MTech students is to join industry where their technical strengths can be applied.

If we can have MTech graduates who, besides having decent SME, also have training in pedagogy and decent strength in ETT – these can be the ideal faculty for colleges and other teaching focused higher education institutions.  As MTech is largely a taught degree, it is amenable to “mass” education, and is therefore much easier to scale up.

To handle the shortage of teachers for colleges and other teaching focused institutions, it is proposed to start MTech in Engineering and Education programs. These programs will focus both on SME and ETT. Such programs will produce graduates who have decent SME, and also have been trained to be effective teachers – ideal for colleges. Also, as the program is targeted to producing teachers, appropriate type of students may enroll who may want to pursue teaching careers. Expectation of such a program will also be to place them in good colleges and universities for teaching positions. (While the actual programs will be specific to the disciplines, like MTech in Computer Science and Education, MTech in Electronics Engineering and Education,  MTech in Robotics and Education, etc., we will use the generic term MTech in Engineering and Education.)

Such an MTech program will be roughly three-fourths on subject matter and one-fourth on pedagogy. In other words, about three-fourths of the courses in the program will be same as the regular MTech in the engineering discipline. In addition, there will be some modules on general engineering education principles and approaches, and a few modules on effective education practices for the discipline.

Hence, only a few new modules on pedagogy will need to be introduced for starting these programs. Developments of these modules will inevitably lead to detailed discussion on pedagogy in the institutions and departments offering such programs, which will lead to emergence of those faculty who have interest and knowledge about HE pedagogy. This can lead to formation of teaching and learning centers or groups in these institutions. Such centers are common in universities in developed countries like USA, Australia, UK, but are rare in India, where top universities and institutions continue to believe that with subject matter expertise good teaching will happen – something the developed countries also believed a few decades ago but have since changed their view to the more reasonable view that while SME is needed, to be an effective teacher, the instructor should also be well versed in pedagogical techniques that will help motivate students and facilitate learning.

Once these modules on effective teaching techniques are developed they can also be available to PhD students in the institution. This will help those PhD students who are looking for academic careers, generally in research focused / top institutions, to be better trained for their academic careers. This is again something that many developed countries have initiated – training their PhD students more formally for being effective teachers, a key aspect of being an academician. These centers can also offer short modules for existing faculty to train them on effective teaching practices. In other words, the initiative to improve education in colleges will end up also helping improve the quality of education in the top universities/institutions.

The thesis of these MTech programs can focus on education in the discipline – they can do data analysis, surveys, studies, experiments, etc focusing on education. This will provide these institutions ability to conduct some research in HE – something which is desired but capability for which generally does not exist in these institutions.  They will be able to do projects on improving education and study the effectiveness of their policies and practices. In other words, thesis from this program can help these institutions in doing research in HE also.

Given the potential benefits to the overall higher education, as well as strong benefits to the institutions having such programs, it will be good if top Institutions can be encouraged to start these programs – IITs, research focused IIITs, etc. These institutions can be expected to do a fine job in designing and delivering such programs, as they are already known to develop strong SME in their students.

With MTech from such places, if these students join colleges as faculty, it will also build linkages between these premiere institutions and colleges. Strongest linkages between academic institutions are always between faculty – which the institutions can facilitate.  When there are faculty in these places which are graduates from leading institutions, natural linkages will emerge, which will lead to more visits, seminars, participation in examinations etc. of faculty in top institutions and these colleges. In the long run, this can have a significant impact on quality improvement of these places – as these linkages will help disseminate practices and policies of top institutions in these places.

These MTechs are likely to do PhDs later (part time while continuing being a faculty, as happens often). These will provide high quality PhD students who have done their MTech training in the top institutions to top institutions – will boost the PhD programs in these places. And will also strengthen linkages with the colleges/universities where these candidates are faculty.

Overall, launching of MTech in Engineering and Education has substantial potential benefits to the quality of engineering education – MTech graduates can improve quality of education in colleges and other teaching focused universities, and PhD graduates with training and modules for existing faculty will help improve quality of education in top institutions and universities. These programs can also help improve research in higher education itself – an areas which is currently highly under-researched. They can also, in the long run, strengthen the PhD programs. And they can build linkages between the top tier institutions and others, which can will help the overall HE system and dissemination of practices and experiences. These programs in Engineering and Education need not be very large – perhaps a batch of about 10 to 20 in a discipline may initially suffice. Given the overlap with existing MTech programs, starting these programs will effectively lead to a limited increase in the MTech program strength. And they can be started quickly – as most of the program content already exists.

Perhaps AICTE / MHRD can provide incentives to 25 institutions from the current list of top 100, to launch such programs in key disciplines. If these institutions are provided with suitable funding, not just for these MTech students, but also for starting the Center on Teaching and Learning, along with support for research and PhD students, and for a reasonable duration (say 5 years extensible if the program succeeds), many of the top institutions will be ready to launch such programs. And if sufficient number of Institutions start it, within a few years, it can have a significant impact on the quality of engineering education in the country.

Quality of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education

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The world of higher education has been shifting its focus from teaching to learning  over the last few decades. Earlier with smaller classes and a much smaller Higher Education (HE) system, a teaching-led education sufficed. Universities decided what should be taught overall, teachers often decided what is to be taught in a course and generally did a sincere job of teaching. Smaller classes allowed attention to individual students, and ability to help if student is facing difficulties. Also, expectations about what is learnt by a student were actually modest, as the world which was to employ them was simpler. In fact, often the graduates were “over educated” for the jobs they took after their education, and the knowledge gained in their education often was more advanced than what could be used directly in their workplace.

The situation is very different now. Due to massification of HE, class sizes are much larger now, not permitting individual attention. And the world has become much more complex and the skills required to be effective in the work place are more sophisticated and multidimensional. This has led to the situation that often what is learnt in HE is not sufficient for working. Consequently demands regarding what students learn in HE have soared and the focus of education has shifted from teaching to learning by students, with the learning outcomes and graduates attributes being driven largely by the workplace of the future.

In this changed scheme of things, it is indeed important to understand that learning is the goal of education, and teaching has to ensure that students learn what they are expected to learn in a course. One can even say that there is no teaching without learning, or that learning by students is the primary goal of teaching by teachers.

So, what makes teaching lead to good learning. What skills or capabilities should a teacher have to ensure learning by students in the course he/ she is teaching. At the top level, a teacher teaching a course on a subject, needs two basic competencies.

  • Subject matter expertise (SME)
  • Effective teaching techniques (ETT)

Clearly subject matter expertise is necessary (though not sufficient) to teach a subject in a manner that students can learn that subject – a teacher who himself has limited understanding of the subject, cannot be expected to teach the subject to a large class to any depth.

Till recently, and even now, in most HEIs, SME was also considered sufficient for a teacher to lead to effective learning. Consequently, faculty with the most advanced degree, that is, a PhD were recruited even in Universities that  did not have a strong research agenda. It was believed that a teacher with subject matter expertise, and with intelligence and analysis and creative capability which must have been developed by doing a PhD, will naturally do what is needed in a class to ensure learning by students.

While this approach sufficed when learning expectation are modest, and it indeed has served well for many decades, it is not-sufficient now. For advanced learning by students, teaching has to be much more than “brilliant lectures by experts”.

And this is what the effective teaching techniques focus on. They focus on what a teacher can do to ensure learning by the students and make teaching more effective.

Though what set of ETT can lead to great teaching is evolving, and it remain an area of research, some of the methods (e.g. Active learning) are now well established. With knowledge and use of effective teaching techniques, a teacher can lead to good learning outcomes for students. In fact, one can say that even with good SME, without employing effective teaching techniques, the learning outcomes achieved will be modest – there are umpteen examples of brilliant scientists who were simply not good teachers.  Universities are filled with examples of such professors who have subject matter expertise but are not good teachers as they lack knowledge and use of ETT.

So, good learning outcomes are delivered, when the teacher has SME as well as expertise in ETT. In fact a teacher with modest SME can still lead to good learning outcomes. For effective learning by students, we can  consider two dimensions – SME and ETT, and by considering capabilities in this as Medium or High, we get 4 quadrants.

ETT High & SME Medium:

Decent Learning

ETT High & SME High:

High Learning

ETT Medium & SME Medium:

Low Learning

ETT Medium & SME High:

Decent Learning

In developed countries, where there is an abundance of people with PhDs from good universities, finding faculty with high SME is not much of a challenge. The focus of these universities is therefore on enhancing the capability of their faculty in ETT. And almost all major universities in countries like USA, Australia, UK have centers for Teaching Excellence (also called Teaching and Learning centers, etc.) – their goal is to strengthen the ETT of their faculty which are already strong in SME.

In India, the situation is quite different. Faculty with suitable SME are really available only in top Institutions, which are able to recruit faculty with PhD and good background. These institutions, if they want to improve the quality of their education focus on improving the capability of their faculty in ETT.

In most other universities and colleges, the subject matter expertise of faculty is often not too deep. Consequently, most of the faculty training and upgradation programs target the subject matter expertise challenge. However, an effort to train faculty in ETT, and systems to strengthen them on an ongoing basis, can also help these HEIs improve the quality of their education. It is likely that continued focus on delivery good learning outcomes may also result in improved subject matter expertise of faculty, as desire to deliver learning outcomes will inevitably lead to learning by faculty of important developments in the subject, design on interesting projects and assignments, studying what is being done in other universities etc. All of which will improve SME.

It should be added that while SME takes years to develop, learning ETT is not that hard or time consuming. The main challenge universities with high quality faculty across the world face is the lack of motivation from faculty to learn these techniques (the implied argument is – I am an expert in my field, why do I need to learn these ETT), and even harder to apply these – as these will require more effort and thought for teaching, than focusing on giving lectures. Therefore, most faculty in the top universities often fall in lower-right quadrant – high expertise but relatively low use of ETT – leading to decent learning by students but not as good as possible. By efforts in improving the deployment of ETT they can easily be in top-right quadrant –  the desired goal for an educator and certainly what a top university should aspire for.

In the discussion above, we have discussed only two levels of SME – medium & high. What if the teacher’s SME is low? While many developed countries can and do ensure that this is not the case, unfortunately same cannot be said about India. There are indeed many faculty in colleges and universities who either never had a decent SME or had but have not updated their knowledge, and consequently do not have a decent SME. It should be clear that no amount of pedagogy techniques can help in this situation. If an HEI cannot ensure that their faculty have a medium/ good level of SME and that the expertise level is maintained or improved with time, students should not expect to achieve decent learning through education being provided in such an HEI.

To summarise, the HEIs in India that have good faculty with good subject matter expertise in their areas, can improve the quality of learning of their students by having their faculty improve the learning outcomes through the use of effective teaching techniques. Those universities where the subject matter expertise is decent but not good, can also benefit by their faculty using ETT – the learning will improve, though for further improvement the faculty will need to upgrade their subject matter expertise. Those universities, where faculty have low level of subject matter expertise, should first ensure that their faculty upgrade themselves in the subject matter.

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.

 

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.

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