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The fascination with niche institutions of higher learning ignores the need for improving existing universities

TA Abinandanan
In 2005, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government announced the formation of Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER) at Kolkata, Pune and Chandigarh; the first two started their operations last July. In September 2006, it announced that five engineering colleges would be ‘upgraded’ to Indian Institutes of Engineering Science and Technology. Just last month, it also ‘awarded’ new Indian Institutes of Technology to Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan.

All this should make us happy and proud that our government is finally getting its act together on higher education, right? Wrong! Absolutely, horribly wrong!

The creation of these new institutions is premised on an over-reliance on Indian Institutes — a phenomenon that is best abbreviated to IIO. As a strategy for positive change IIO is flawed, inefficient, and expensive. From the point of view of nation building, IIO represents an utter bankruptcy of imagination.

The flaws in IIO stem from its smug assumption that, somehow, small institutions training a few thousand students in niche areas are enough to feed the country’s immense appetite for skilled manpower. This smugness also makes it callously indifferent to the hunger for knowledge and skills among our millions of students who languish in our universities and colleges.

From an operational viewpoint, IIO has historically been an inefficient strategy. In any academic institution, certain facilities are common: library, lecture halls, laboratories, sports facilities, amphitheatres, and computing and internet infrastructure. The bigger the institution — the larger the student and faculty population that uses this common infrastructure — the lower the effective cost per user. With its emphasis on small institutions, IIO has bred inefficiency. A similar argument applies to the student-teacher ratio. Currently, IITs operate at about seven students per teacher (going by the 2003 figures from the Rama Rao Committee report). As MA Pai points out, this ratio is three times as high in “most US public universities”. Clearly, a poor country like ours has every right to expect — in fact, demand — that our institutions perform at the highest levels of efficiency. Engineers and managers from our IITs and iims would demand no less in the products and services they design, develop or manage!

Naorem Ashish
More important than its inefficiency and narrow vision is the enormous cost of IIO. Just ask yourself this question: if our government is so proud of its IIO strategy, why doesn’t it convert all our universities and colleges into Indian Institutes of This and That? Let us do some quick math.

The three new IITs, for example, are estimated to cost Rs 1,400 crore per year for the next five years. When fully operational, they will have 14,000 students (8,000 bachelors, 2,000 masters and 4,000 doctoral students — all of which are generous estimates), giving us a cost of Rs 50 lakh per student. Writing this sum off over a 20-year period gives us Rs 2.5 lakh per student per year. That is just fixed costs alone. Add to it about Rs 1.5 lakh per student as annual running expenses, taking the total to over Rs 4 lakh per student per year.

To put this number in perspective, if our government were to lavish even a quarter of this amount on every student, it would end up spending Rs 1,00,000 crore — roughly 3 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). Put another way, this is eight times India’s current expenditure on higher education (0.37 percent of GDP). Is it any wonder, then, that “IITs for all” is not the favourite slogan of our higher education planners?  

Ultimately, IIO blinkers us into an utterly unimaginative — and some would say, delusional — worldview which devalues academic disciplines that are not worthy of an Indian Institute. Isn’t it absurd to even assume that anything other than technology, science, and management (and hotel management) is unimportant for our country? Don’t we need great economists to steer us through the turbulence of globalisation? Psychologists to help us deal with stresses from a fast-paced life? Artists to make our lives richer and enjoyable? And philosophers to make sense of our uniquely human condition and our (almost) impending immortality? 

Ultimately, IIO blinkers us into an unimaginative worldview which devalues disciplines that are not worthy of an Indian Institute. Isn’t it absurd to even assume that anything other than technology, science and management (and hotel management) is unimportant?
We must demand that our next generation be exposed to the big, bold and beautiful ideas from all disciplines. This demand is not just pseudo-idealistic rhetoric; it is firmly rooted in reality. Consider: while mature fields have a clearly articulated set of unsolved problems (though the solution paths are yet to be discovered!), it’s the disciplinary interstices that often offer scope for asking probing questions and for making exciting discoveries. Take, for example, nanotechnology — arguably the most happening field in the sciences. It straddles physics, chemistry, biology, and electronics. I can cite neurophysics and biochemistry as other examples of such mixed fields in natural sciences. In the social sciences too, scorching hot fields such as behavioural economics and psycholinquistics straddle multiple disciplines. Do we have examples of hot fields that span natural and social sciences? We sure do: econophysics, sociobiology and social networks.

All these inter/cross-disciplinary fields hold great promise — both in the short term and in the long term. We must empower our youth to benefit from — contribute to — the fantastic new developments in these areas. We must dump IIO, and actively seek better alternatives. One alternative is readily suggested by IIO’s flaws we have discussed so far. This alternative is an institution whose academic footprint spans humanities and arts, natural and social sciences, and professions such as law, management, medicine and engineering. In other words, a Real University!

I can hear you groan, “you mean, like, a Delhi University?”. Don’t panic, I’m not recommending that we let a 100 dus bloom. Serious problems plague our universities, and many of them can be traced back to the hub-and-spoke structure with a centralised university and its affiliated colleges. This structure has effectively isolated practicing researchers from teaching bachelors students. Granted, we inherited this structure from the British; but our former colonial masters dumped it a long time ago in favour of Real Universities!

A Real University combines the great features of IITs (functional autonomy, generous funding, co-habitation of research and undergraduate teaching) and our universities (multiple disciplines), and improves upon the result. It will solve the problems of intellectual, disciplinary and physical fragmentation: active researchers will teach bachelors, masters and doctoral students, programmes in a variety of disciplines will be on offer, and economies of scale will operate in every way possible — large campuses with tens of thousands of students.

So, how do we create Real Universities? One option is to build them from the ground up. The National Knowledge Commission has recommended precisely such a course of action: creating what it calls National Universities — some 50 of them over the next several years. This recommendation deserves our whole-hearted support.

But we do not have to stop with creating rus from scratch. We can also encourage other institutions — by providing the right incentives — to convert into rus. For example, our universities can offer bachelors programmes. Similarly, IITs can expand into social sciences and humanities. The elite research institutions (IISC, TIFR) can expand into bachelors programmes as well as into social sciences and humanities. And finally, some of our more accomplished colleges can become RUs by adding research to their portfolio of activities.

Do all our institutions have to be RUs? Of course not. Just as the developed countries have their community and vocational colleges, liberal arts colleges, and research universities, we must also aim for a diversity of institutions, each with its own unique set of advantages. For example, our colleges have done a good job of keeping the costs down largely by having full-time teachers. Not only can they be a low-cost alternative to RUs, they can also force the latter to keep their costs in check. 

With greenfield and brownfield initiatives, we can easily bring — within the next five years or so — at least one million students (10 percent) under a modern system of Real Universities. If our state governments also allow the universities under their control to be converted into Real Universities, this number can easily be three or four times larger. Now, that is an achievement that we can all be proud of.

Abinandanan is with the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
The views expressed are personal

Feb 10 , 2007


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