India's universities are coming apart, political class ignores damage 

In a recent article (IE, April 12, “The path of excellence”), R Subrahmanyam, a former secretary, higher education, addresses the issue of what is holding back India’s universities. The views of civil servants, publicly expressed, are important, for bureaucrats exert a significant influence on how India’s public institutions of higher education are run. Subrahmanyam identifies “leadership” as crucial to achieving world class universities in India, a goal expressed in the UGC (Institutions of Eminence Deemed to be Universities) Regulation Act 2017. There can be no quarrel with this, but two points may be made on the suggestion. Do the central and state governments even aim to appoint persons of proven academic leadership to the universities over which they exercise control?

Actually, they appear in their choice to be plainly guided by the expectation of political allegiance over all else. It would be difficult to identify too many academics of proven excellence among the leadership appointments in India’s public educational institutions in the recent past. Exceptions apart, the myriad private institutions in the country do not have a better record. The second point is that even the best leaders can achieve nothing if they are governed by rigid externally set rules. In India’s higher education ecosystem, these rules appear mainly in the form of the ubiquitous UGC guidelines.

For Indian universities to have even a fighting chance of being a player on the global stage requires governance approximating world standards. I shall mention here a few areas in which India is off the global benchmark by a wide margin. Faculty everywhere are expected to teach and do research. In India, in neither of these areas is performance subject to a professional review. In the case of teaching, we know exactly what is needed. Courses should be evaluated by students for content and delivery. While we may not want to rely on such evaluations entirely, they are a crucial means of assessing teaching. The absence of student evaluation is the reason why in many of India’s institutions students complain that teachers get away with shoddy work or, worse still, with just not turning up in class. Research evaluation is a more difficult task and existing methods remain contested even globally, but one thing is clear — the current practice in India’s universities based on the UGC’s Academic Performance Indicators (API) is flawed beyond repair.

Scoring of publications according to where a paper has been published is known to be misleading when it comes to judging the impact of research on the production of knowledge. The practice of numerical scoring of research output must be jettisoned for a more holistic approach. Moreover, it is not clear whether some of the activities counted under the API system should be counted at all in an evaluation of academic output. This is apart from the burden that scoring places on India’s universities in terms of time and resources. Global best practices in the evaluation of academic performance are known, and India should take on board the best aspects. In fact, it should, if Indian academics are to face a level playing field internationally. It is the rules governing research rather than funding that is key to research output in Indian universities, though in some areas of science and technology funding could make a difference.

A second area where current practices stand in the way of improvement is admission to courses of study and hiring of faculty. Both student admission and faculty hiring prescribe, among other things, the minimum grade attained and the subject studied for the previous degree. The UGC should leave this matter to academic bodies, requiring only that there should be external oversight in the selection of faculty. Globally, India’s universities stand out in having to labour under strict rules on these matters, causing emigration of talent to the universities of the West. One way to see the difference between regulation and governance is that while the former is preventative, exercising control to achieve its end, the latter aims to bring about an improvement in the existing state of affairs. Given their colonial provenance, many of India’s public institutions are heavily loaded towards control by a rule-bound bureaucracy without the incentive to bring about a change for the better.

To Subrahmanyam’s apt observation that physical infrastructure does not a centre of excellence make, I have added the role of the rules of the game in India’s universities as a factor responsible for their miserable state in global comparison. But there is something beyond both these, which though difficult to define, is easy to spot. This is the spirit in which universities are founded. Universities are meant to engage in the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge. This requires an unconditional commitment to free speech, including the pursuit of research agendas of choice, so long as it does not impinge on democratic norms. This character of a university cannot be made hostage to the whims and ideologies of the state.

The fact that the universities of the West have largely remained free of the state even when they receive public funds is perhaps the single most important reason why they have succeeded, which in turn explains why India’s youth flock to them. India’s universities are haemorrhaging, and the political class responsible for governing them seems to ignore the long-term damage caused by the exit of the ablest from this country. For the university, neither infrastructure nor less stringent rules can be a substitute for the total freedom of expression geared towards attaining excellence in the production of knowledge.