Balancing speed and perfection in building a world-class school of economics
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Since we are only used to hear announcements of IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology), IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management), and AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Science), Karnataka chief minister’s backing for establishing a school of economics in Bengaluru is a welcome move. Reading 2017-18 budget, Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah portrayed this approval as a significant achievement in higher education sector. The proposed school, named “Bengaluru Dr B.R.Ambedkar School of Economics” (BASE), will be modelled on the lines of London School of Economics (LSE). By associating with LSE, the government has stated the intent of building a ‘world-class’ university. While this school is expected to address the substantial need for basic economics talent in the state, the government’s intentions are to make it much more. The lack of Karnataka centric economics research is apparent in debates ranging from Kasturirangan report on the Western Ghats to Yettinahole Project to even dubbing in Kannada film industry. Can this school address this shortage?
The budget speech and grant documents are silent on actual grant amounts to this proposed institution. While there is a significant increase in “Grants-in-Aid General” to Bangalore University, there are no budget amounts under “asset creation” line. It is not even clear if the proposed school be part of Bangalore University. However, earlier this year, higher education minister, Basavaraj Rayareddy had announced the cabinet approval of ₹150 crore towards setting up Ambedkar School. Also, the cabinet granted 43 acres of land belonging to Bangalore University on a 99-year lease. The Indian Express also reported that Jindal Group has agreed to provide financial support (after all, Jindal group had approached Bangalore University in starting a Jindal School of Economics couple of years back. Following protests from the syndicate, they had withdrawn the idea). As per the minister, the school is expected to begin during the upcoming academic year (2017-18) using buildings of Bangalore University, temporarily. In the speed of starting classes soon, seems like the vision of “LSE-type, world-class institution” has been forgotten. It is in the danger of becoming one more educational institution in the state.
A World Bank report titled The Road to Academic Excellence: The making of world class research universities lays out necessary conditions of a world-class institution. The report lists three ‘must’ conditions to be present from the start: academic talent, financial resources, and governance—particularly autonomy and academic freedom. If the government is serious in its vision of world-class, perfection has to be the driver more than speed, especially in these initial days of Ambedkar School. While building world-class university is not possible within five-year term of the government, it can certainly plant the right seeds in right places now.
There are five steps, the government should follow, in this order, in building Ambedkar School.
First, create the right teams. An independent Governing Board that brings together a range of experts; it can start small and can grow eventually. Members of the governing board should be experts in different fields (academics, infrastructure, legal, etc.) and not all economists. The other team required is operational team to ‘make-it-happen’. This team needs two types of people—who can wade through bureaucracy, and who manage the project. For the former, bureaucrats who have a demonstrated track record of getting things done that require complex interdepartmental coordination and manage political forces pulling in multiple directions would be right fit. The government often relies on professors in managing the project progress in education institutions. Any professors in newly built IITs or IISERs (Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research) will tell you how wrong is this idea. Leading universities in the world hire professional managers for this job.
Second, the government should announce its grant plan for, at least, next 10 years to bring the financial predictability. Alternatively, release an endowment fund in the range of ₹500 to ₹600 crore now (if it seems high, it is around 10% of annual higher education expenditure in the state).
Third, the governing body and operational teams work on vision, mission, and roadmap of the institution. Before designing they ought to study other economics schools in India—Delhi School of Economics (DSE), Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR) to name a few. Rather than replicating these institutions, it is imperative to be different and stay relevant. Focusing on the needs of the state, not only as talent creation but also as a place for Karnataka centric research, is a must (even though LSE is a global thought leader, good portion of its research is on the needs of the United Kingdom). The roadmap should address the journey for next 25 years. The roadmap has the areas like curriculum coverage, content focus along with clear timelines. It is usually better to begin with a small number of students and programmes, then scale up after institutionalising a strong academic culture.
As the fourth step, architectural design and construction plan. A typical university in India would start breaking grounds, literally, without much considerations to the content focus. Winston Churchill once said, “We shape buildings; thereafter they shape us”. Top universities include classroom design in their educational strategy. Physical infrastructure should follow from to the requirements of the roadmap and not the other way around. Since Ambedkar School will be a city university, it would be apt for the institution to spread across the city rather than in ‘a campus’. Regionally inspired architectures with a lot of open spaces, libraries—designed as public libraries—in different parts of the city will be good for ‘being with the city’.
Finally, when all these plans are in place, it is a good time to start attracting academic talents, professors, and then students. They are one of the most important members in the journey. Attracting global talent requires clarity. That is the reason why this is the last step in the execution. With clear roadmap and content focus, prospective professors understand their fit in the institution. At least for this school, the government should relax ‘Indian citizen’ constraint and open the positions for global talents while maintaining the regional balance. Once the teaching faculty comes on board, they can design courses, research labs in line with the vision and mission. In the similar lines, student selection should also be for diversity, starting with diversity in the state itself.
Some of these steps may look misplaced. That is because we are used to starting digging before having the blueprint ready. It is true that India needs 125 new universities per year for next five years to meet the demand. But it doesn’t mean that we should not focus on building some world-class institutions. We may make thousands of buildings every year, but once in few decades, we should also build Mysore palace or a Taj Mahal. Ambedkar School should be the next such palace for economics education in India.
Vikas Argod is a Bengaluru-based supply chain management consultant. This was written as a part of a #StatesMatter initiative by the Takshashila Institution, an initiative to deepen public discussion on Indian state budgets.