Obstacles to a new revolution

PRATAP BHANU MEHTA

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THERE is no doubt that India needs something of a revolution in university education. The fate lines of India’s future, and the fault lines of its politics will, in so many crucial respects, depend upon the character of its universities. If India is to sustain high growth and participate in the knowledge economy of the 21st century, its system of education will need a radical overhaul. As agriculture becomes economically and socially a less attractive option, and demand for absorption in processes of urbanization increases, there will be renewed pressure on the universities to prepare society for the coming transformation. Education will be the crucial mechanism through which access to opportunity is structured, and the character of our universities will determine, to a large degree, who gets what in society.

Arguably, not only the shape of our civic consciousness, or our ability to cope with diversity but also aim for excellence will be profoundly shaped by the experience of university life. In sheer quantitative terms, the challenge of increasing our gross enrolment ratios is a daunting one: it will require us to double the size of our higher education system over fifteen years or so, and at much higher quality. As access to primary and secondary education improves, albeit slowly, the sheer surge of demand will lead to greater expansion of the system.

It is in this context that there is talk of a rapid expansion of the Indian university system under the 11th plan. Certainly, the numbers look impressive: dozens of new IITs and IIMs, thirty new universities funded by the central government, a massive upgrading of vocational institutions, dozens of new medical colleges and so on. But there is no doubt that the form in which this expansion is being planned will lead to not a revolution but something of a social disaster. To use Partha Mukhopadhyay’s telling phrase, ‘We have plans for university buildings, not for building universities.’

Why? There are of course a number of specific proposals for enhancing infrastructure, including information and communication technologies, and introducing scholarship programmes that are worthy of implementation. But fundamentally, the 11th plan remains mired in a mind-set that does not match ends and means, and promotes bureaucratisation and levelling rather than diversity and innovation. In some respects this is a shame. Bad institutions are notoriously hard to reform, while new institutions are easier to create. But if the hundreds of new institutions being envisaged in the 11th plan are not built on a rational foundation, their consequences can well be disastrous.

 

The big question running through the plan is a potential tension between quality and quantity. Some believe that by a mysterious alchemy quantity turns into quality, and let me lay it on the table that I feel the idea is dubious. The main question is not simply: How do we meet a particular numerical target? It is rather: Do we have the means to get there? What is the pace at which the expansion can take place? What are the costs of doing things quickly and poorly rather than slowly but surely?

Almost everything in institution-building turns on one word: execution (curious that this is the word that along with sanction means both itself and its opposite!). But a proper execution strategy will require (i) Detailed intellectual, financial and pedagogic planning of the kind that very few people in the system are capable of carrying out; you need detailed business plans. (ii) Unless the political class is willing to take on some binding constraints, this unique opportunity in terms of funding will be squandered. Great universities help produce a great society. No universities will keep a society backward, but stable, bad universities will produce a volcano of social discontent. If your graduates are unemployable, expanding the system is even worse. Building universities is a battle that has to be won college by college, university by university, with drastic measures including appropriately designed voluntary retirement schemes, governance reform, asset management, financial restructuring and so on. This note just pertains to structural issues in new institutions.

 

Financing: The Achilles heel of the Indian system is that very few institutions are funded enough to fulfil their objectives: if the Centre puts in the money, the states don’t match it; if there is capital investment, there is not enough for recurring costs, and so forth. Almost all the new universities that we have started in the last few years suffer from this problem, in addition to the fact that the baseline investments in faculty and infrastructure are low. This strategy runs the risk of lots of investment too thinly spread out. Let us take the case of universities.

Let us first take some comparable benchmark figures. Significant university projects started outside the OECD (Turkey, China, Hong Kong), that have achieved anything approaching global quality have had a minimum initial investment of close to a billion dollars per university; the currently most ambitious Indian not for profit, project Vedanta, is pegged at a billion dollars as well.

If this scale of expenditure is thought of as exceptional, take some Indian benchmarks. Delhi University’s recurring expenditure for 18,000 postgraduate students (excluding undergraduates) is about Rs 180 crore; even Bundelkhand University at the lowest end of the quality order has recurring costs of close to Rs 100 crore a year. Hyderabad Central spends about two lakh rupees per student, Aligarh about Rs 98,000. This is a roundabout way of saying that even now the minimal recurring cost per student is anywhere between a lakh to two lakh rupees a student. It should be stressed that this is still at our low levels of faculty salary and infrastructure.

Initial capital investments are also very low in Indian universities. To put it bluntly, unless there is an initial capital investment of approximately Rs 500-700 crore per university, there is very little chance of creating even national level universities. Again, this is the minimal floor. Surveys of life sciences departments (‘biology will be to the 21st century what physics was to the 20th’) suggests the minimal initial capital expenditure for a decent research teaching department is close to Rs 75-80 crore.

 

In short, the minimal investment required for a national class university is land, plus capital investment of more than Rs 500-700 crore, plus recurring costs of close to Rs 300 crore a year. Over the first five years it needs land plus over Rs 1,200 crore per university, otherwise it has no chance of being national level quality. Even this is a very conservative estimate. The plan proposal envisages an allocation of between Rs 300-500 crore per university over five years. Quite frankly, this will not do. What it will get you is more of the same. A world class university will need a 1:10 recurring: capital plus land ratio to be globally competitive. It is difficult to see how these allocations will sustain that kind of a university.

It is also a bit odd that the expenditures envisaged are back loaded, gradually increasing. It should be the opposite for two reasons. (i) Capital investment comes up front and part of the quality of faculty you attract will depend upon how attractive the university research facilities are. (ii) Great institutions will not be made by incremental augmentation of resources, since once a compromise is made on standards and aspirations, it is very difficult to make course correction.

 

Fees: The much talked about proposal to recover 20 per cent of the cost is admirable in some respects. But it is important that a target not be converted into a formula. In the Indian system, the costs of education do not have wide variance within the public system (because salaries and capital costs operate within similar bounds). But the quality variance is very high. Asking someone at Ajmer University to pay roughly the same fee as at an IIT or a National Law School as a proportion of costs is not quite fair. It would be better to peg recovery on ability to pay and expected earnings, not to cost. This is not only fair, it is a way of pricing education that makes education more accountable. This is easier to do with respect to professional schools. Take for example the law schools. Apparently median starting salaries at NUJS (National University of Judicial Sciences) are seven lakh rupees a year; it is easier to price the cost of that degree as equivalent to a year or two of the starting salary, with appropriate exceptions for those who choose public sector jobs etc. It will be important not to use the 20 per cent of cost principle as a simple formula.

Access: The emphasis on expanding money for scholarships is admirable and long overdue. But there is a need to ensure that scholarships, particularly for SC/ST students, are pegged at the right levels. The problem with current scholarship schemes is that they consist largely of tuition coverage and have low level stipends. Evidence suggests that even for those SC/ST students who make it to high school, the main impediment in transiting to higher education is financial; they require not just fee subsidy, but generous stipends. There needs to be more detailing of scholarship schemes.

There is something worrying about the requirement that institutions be given assistance based on how many SC/ST/OBC/Minority students they have. While the aim is admirable, there is a danger of setting up perverse incentives. Either it pressures institutions to lower admission criteria even further to avail funds, or they forego funds. Neither is a desirable equilibrium. There is of course the third possibility that because of failures at the secondary school level, there isn’t requisite supply and yet universities are penalised for it. Since the principle that scholarships ought to be attached to students has been accepted, it should be followed through. The fact that students have money in their pocket will itself create a set of institutions that can cater to their needs, and individuals can exercise choice over what institutions suit them. It would, of course, have been better if scholarship budgets were even higher.

 

Rather than rewarding institutions on this criteria, it would be better to have specially funded programmes for institutions that show greater innovation in helping students from marginalised groups once they get there. All the evidence suggests that inequality in initial endowments persists even after students have been given access unless there are support programmes. Perhaps one measure of innovation could be to examine if the graduating percentile of students from marginalised groups changes significantly from their admission percentile.

The other issue, particularly with respect to jobs for students who come through the reserved category is political. A crude account of Rajasthan’s demographics goes like this: the Meenas monopolize ST reservations; after the Jats got OBC status they dominate that category and the Chamars dominate the SC category. Access needs to go beyond these three blunt classifications which define reservation, if the system is to be truly opened up. Otherwise inclusion simply becomes a coalition of elites from particular groups. The ideal solution would be to find different and more diverse forms of affirmative action. But one assumes that is out of bounds of possibility.

 

Faculty: This is, without doubt, the single most significant bottleneck in the expansion plan. Even current faculty requirements are not being met (just see Delhi School of Economics, or IIT Delhi). There are two huge problems: supply of good graduate students (our Ph.D programmes have been deteriorating in quality), and the absurd pay scales for talented faculty.

Someone will have to bite the political bullet and decide that in an elite group of universities, faculty salaries will be at least three to five times higher than the current norm. This is the minimum, if one is to have a reasonable shot at attracting talent. Just to put it in perspective, China adopted an interesting strategy for recruiting faculty to some of its universities. They pegged pay scales to Ivy League salaries, adjusted for purchasing power parity plus housing (not a bad norm!). The second bullet that we have to bite is to admit differentials across disciplines. I strongly believe in the idea of a professoriate, and there is something wonderful about every professor being paid the same. But the harsh truth is that you cannot attract, far less retain a good economist or computer science professor or neurologist for the same scales as a humanities professor. Within universities you might have to accept a differential of at least 1:3, to be competitive in certain disciplines.

 

Even this proposal is at the lower end. Do a thought experiment. China is fulfilling its academic shortages by recruiting overseas Chinese at extraordinary salaries, and in cases where they do not find this talent they are recruiting foreigners. Our potential source is of talent in the long run is the huge Indian academic community abroad at all ages. What would it take to get some of them back? Our surveys suggest that while for them research budgets and freedom are important, on the salary issue they do not expect unreasonable sums. But even that norm is still much higher than anything on our horizon. Doing top-offs from research grants, consultancies and incentive payments for participation in university activity is a possibility. But still, if the base is too low, it will not get quality, and if faculty is made too dependent on outside activities it detracts from their academic mission. In addition, we will have to introduce other incentives as well (pension portability to increase mobility, housing – the single biggest incentive, and so on). I just don’t see that happening in these budgets.

Unless we are willing to bite the bullet on differentiation in academic salaries, we have no hope. The blunt truth is that in academics and research, the quality of the top one per cent has huge pay offs for the system and if one does not have a strategy for attracting that one can never be world class.

The second issue in faculty is sourcing. The current graduate programmes are abysmally positioned to supply our needs, and they will not improve because the average quality of faculty in our universities is so low. Besides attracting back talent from abroad, what are our options?

One of the biggest mistakes we made (understandable for administrative reasons) was to take research out of the universities, whether it is the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research labs, or in the social sciences, creating too many institutions like ISI (Indian Statistical Institute), CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, CSSS (Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, CPR (Centre for Policy Research), among others. At the moment, many of these institutions have first rate faculty who are not involved in teaching. Is there a way of incentivising and reconnecting these institutions to university teaching?

 

Just a quick survey suggests that at least in the social sciences, and in some branches of science, this is probably the best cohort of academics we have. In at least four cities – Kolkata, Bangalore, Delhi, Ahmedabad (possibly Chennai and Hyderabad as well) – the combined talent in these institutions exceeds or is equal to the best in the universities. And only in India do we make sure that our best academics are not part of the university system. Similarly with our flagship National Law Schools. They have some of the best students in the country, but the faculty is not quite up to the mark. Indeed they are an instructive case of how difficult it is to attract faculty as are IIM Lucknow, Indore and Khozikhode.

But the scale of deficit on quality faculty is so high that we will require an extraordinary effort to overcome it. It is difficult to see how that effort will take place under the current norms and spending proposals.

 

Governance: As everyone knows, this is absolutely crucial. But too much of our governance debate is about formal statutory norms, not about the men and women who will govern. The first step in governance reform is to restore dignity to the concept of a university (to wit, it is a degree granting authority). In fact, many of our old statutes give the university ample statutory protection. But, and this presentation reflects it, the UGC (University Grants Commission) should not be setting pedagogical or curricular norms for universities.

Why look for curriculum change minimally every three years? If one is envisaging a credit based system, then professors (within approval of their department) will be or ought to be making new courses and updating syllabi every year. If one has quality faculty this is supposed to happen. Will professors grade their own students (as is the case in credit based universities) or will there be centralised exams? Or a combination of both methods? This is a subject for a longer disquisition, but the pedagogical dimensions are not thought through, nor is it clear that a centralised agency should be doing this. This is what universities are meant to do.

We also need to revolutionise our concept of accountability. Our current conception rests on the fallacious idea that universities need to be accountable to some agency like the UGC. Accountability is produced by a combination of many factors: competition, reputation, peer professional standing and so forth. We need to move from a vertical conception of accountability to a horizontal one. All one needs is the informational basis; a focus on creating competition for faculty and students.

The crucial question in all governance reform is: Who will be the actual people performing various functions? Take for instance, peer review. The UGC does review various sorts of universities, but these are of abysmally low standard. Part of the difficulty is that the regulatory agencies (with some individual exceptions) are comprised of people and appoint people for reviews at a standard that is even lower than that of most universities. There is some truth to Delhi University’s reluctance to be accredited by the National Accreditation Council. Why should good universities subject themselves to bureaucrats when they are getting the vote of students?

The important issue will not be the formal guidelines we lay down; we have far too many of those. It is going to be, who are the people executing them? So, if we plan for twenty new universities, can we think of twenty national stature vice chancellors, given that even the existing system is struggling? The best approach to institution building is the old one: get smart, wise people and empower them to take the decisions. Would it be possible to create strong teams that are empowered to take decisions in each of these universities? How effectively will these teams be able to resist government interference? This will be a crucial vicious circle to surmount. To be honest, several of our universities have very strong statutory protection, but eminences on their boards find it impossible to stand up to government. There is no formal answer to this question, but this is not an issue that can be ignored.

 

Pedagogy: This is a matter for longer debate, but if we were setting up universities in the 21st century from scratch, would we configure them along the same disciplinary lines as the existing universities? There is a global revolution in undergraduate education underway, which is reemphasising generalisable skills (maths, logic, capacity to write and therefore think); in engineering there is a move to reintegrate back engineering both to the sciences on the one hand and design on the other. We are making this huge investment without a minimal debate on what should we be allocating this money to? Who will make this decision?

That is why it is crucial that the initial teams setting up each university be drawn not just from the existing cohort of Indian faculty, but be global in character. We are underestimating the degree to which we have lost the idea of an innovative professoriate that can answer these questions.

 

I have raised the core issue of governance, faculty supply, access and financing to suggest that in very practical terms, the rapid expansion being envisaged could easily backfire. The form of this expansion is also ignoring one important feature of building institutions: agglomeration effects. Take any discipline, and assume twenty world class faculty in that discipline. They will be far less effective and likely to be overrun by mediocrity were they distributed across many universities than if concentrated in a few good ones. These universities in turn, could service other universities by creating excellent doctoral programmes.

I have dwelt on these basic questions because even at this crude level, there is no evidence that we are thinking about how to match ends and means in education. If such is the state of affairs at this level, what are we to expect from more sophisticated discussions on pedagogy and research? Our bombast is greater than our ability to think clearly. But what else are we to expect from a university system that has so internalised the idea that universities are about everything else but cultivating the intellect.

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