In a developing country, a good university system may seem a luxury. Not true: Universities are one of the most important institutions to improve national competitiveness. They attract and produce young talent. India now has an opportunity to create a university system that could be the envy of the world, and the core strength of its economy. For the moment, however, it is missing the chance.
Frances Cairncross is rector of Exeter College, University of Oxford
By common consent, India’s universities are a muddle. A few are wonderful. However, the most well known outside India—the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs)—are not proper universities at all, but are technical-professional schools, turning out people such as Narayana Murthy of Infosys and Arun Sarin, the chief executive of Vodafone and a graduate of India’s largest IIT at Kharagpur. And they take only a tiny fraction of students. Every year, about three lakh people take the entrance exams for about 5,500 seats at the IITs; another 1.9 lakh students slog it out for 1,300 seats at the six IIMs.
Most students attend one of 16,000 or so colleges loosely affiliated to giant universities that administer examinations and distribute degrees. The system was designed to allow a relatively small number of prestigious universities to supervise the education of large numbers of students. Some of these affiliated colleges are prestigious institutions. But far too many are under-equipped, under-financed and under-managed. Many of the best scholars emigrate to enrich academic communities elsewhere. No wonder the faculty directory of Harvard Business School reads like a Delhi telephone directory.
India not only has too many mediocre universities, it has too few. No wonder, more and more of those who fail to get a place at one of the top institutes turn to study abroad. India still sends far fewer young people to study abroad than China does—young Indians account for 4% of students studying overseas, compared with China’s 10%, the world’s largest number. But the numbers are rising fast.
Meanwhile, students too often graduate unequipped for the demands of an economy whose future will be built on the quality of its science, its technology, its management and its service industries. After all, only a couple of years ago, a famous report by Nasscom, the trade club of India’s software companies, and McKinsey, a big consultancy, warned that only a quarter of India’s technical graduates and 10–15% of general college graduates were suitable for employment in India’s IT industry.
What is the answer? There is nothing inevitable about the mediocrity of so many Indian universities. As Ramachandra Guha pointed out in a talk delivered recently at the 150th anniversary of Bombay University, the universities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras were the crucible of modernity in India. From the early days, they took women as well as men, provided a ladder for scholars of low caste and accepted students from every religious background. They produced works of scholarship and scientific advances. They nurtured nationalism and the nation state.
But the heavy hand of government regulation has squeezed much of the vigour out of India’s universities, in a series of ham-fisted attempts to secure equality of access to higher education. The government has starved state-financed universities of cash, restricted them from charging adequate tuition fees and offered no incentive to raise their own endowments. A bumper Bill on affirmative action, passed at the end of last year, will compel universities to set aside many of their places for disadvantaged groups.
Instead of bullying universities to fill their scarce places with students selected on non-academic grounds, the government should encourage competition. America’s universities, the most diverse in the world, also educate a higher proportion of the population than universities in most countries. And this is in spite of charging fees—and encouraging the accumulation of tremendous quantities of debt.
The answer lies in competition. In America, competition between the state and private universities lifts the quality of all. In India, things frequently go better when companies become so exasperated with state provision that they set up their own parallel private provision. This is now happening with universities. Foreign universities are starting to build up provision (indeed, Oxford is building a research programme on Indian business, partly in India). And some industrialists have moved into providing higher education: Vinay Rai, who made a fortune in steel and telecoms, now runs a chain of 16 campuses that make up the Rai University and concentrates on vocational subjects such as accountancy and management. Other companies are wondering whether to set up corporate universities of their own (as American companies have done in the past) in order to expand the horizons and deepen the skills of the graduates on their staff. If university education is allowed to develop in many different ways, then there is a real chance that India’s universities will recapture their former glory. And only then will India be able to use its vast reserves of intelligent young people to build the world’s largest knowledge economy.
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