with niche institutions of higher learning ignores the need for improving
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
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!
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?
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
is with the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
The views expressed are personal