July 21, 2007

Higher education and its lows

This article originally appeared in The Indian Express on July 21, 2007.

There is a reason why over 80,000 Indian families are breaking the bank to enroll their children in American universities. The state of India’s higher education is shameful for a country that prides itself as a rising “knowledge power”. Indian institutions fail to make the top 100 in most global rankings of universities, including those compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong University or Newsweek magazine. Only the collective Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management feature in the top hundred according to rankings in the Times Higher Education Supplement. “Almost two-third of our universities and 90 per cent of our colleges are rated as below average on quality parameters,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh revealed last month in Mumbai.

The lack of quality among India’s universities is compounded by the lax system of accreditation and recognition. This partially explains why India has, by some counts, almost 18,000 institutes of higher learning — if one were to count affiliated colleges — compared to about 6,000 in the United States. When Chhattisgarh chose to relax restrictions on private universities in 2002, numerous unaccredited, privately-run ‘storefront universities’ sprang up almost overnight.

India’s record in quaternary education and research, in particular, is dismal. The country had between ten and eleven million students enrolled in its institutes of higher education in 2001-02, comparable to the estimated twelve million enrolled in China and sixteen million enrolled in the US. However, the country produces only about 6,000 doctorates a year, compared to 9,000 in China and 25,000 in the US. Microsoft Senior Vice President Craig Mundie noted in 2005 that Indian universities awarded about 50 PhDs in computer science annually — less than a large computer science department in a single US university.

The absence of substantive reform will threaten India’s ability to continue its vibrant economic growth, based as it is on services and high-end manufacturing. A draft bill on foreign educational institutions, which has not yet been introduced in Parliament, would do little to alleviate the crisis of Indian academia.

The bill seeks “the prevention of commercialisation” of higher education by foreign institutions and controls the curricula and content of foreign universities’ courses. Rather than scaling back the power of the University Grants Commission (UGC) to disbursing grants to and maintaining public institutions, as the National Knowledge Commission recommended to the prime minister last November, this bill puts more power in the UGC’s hands. It is hardly the “systematic overhaul” of higher education that the Knowledge Commission said the country direly needed.

A major overhaul should include, among other measures, tax incentives for philanthropic contributions to universities, independent but standardised accreditation, deregulated salaries for faculty members, and regular evaluation of accredited institutions. Foreign investment in the higher education sector cannot be discouraged. Increased funding and an improvement in quality will in turn allow for scholarships for economically underprivileged students, greater retention of faculty, and better research incentives for both students and academics.

Increased financial incentives for professors and doctoral students are of particular importance in an increasingly global educational environment. In the US, PhD awardees, primarily researchers and academics, earn on an average about 80 per cent of the earnings of graduates with professional degrees (such as doctors and lawyers), over 140 per cent of the earnings of masters degree recipients and more than 170 per cent of what is earned by graduates with only bachelor degrees. In India, the government-regulated academic and research system struggles to provide salaries even comparable to the private sector in India or academic institutions abroad.

However, there is room for cautious optimism. The All India Council for Technical Education, which accredits engineering institutions, was made a provisional member of the Washington Accord last month, demonstrating that the current regime can make steps in the right direction when motivated. At the same speech in Mumbai where he lamented the state of higher education, the prime minister unveiled measures to set up 30 new central universities, with an aim to equip them with high-quality faculty and resources. The Planning Commission promptly followed up on this pronouncement with a blueprint for the new universities.

So far, so good. But if he wants to ensure the longevity of the financial reforms he set in motion sixteen years ago, the prime minister must build on the public statements and blueprints and ensure that the liberalisation of higher education proceeds quickly, smoothly and effectively.