The Indian government recently announced its intention to create world-class educational institutions (WCIs)—10 in the public sector and 10 in the private—with an investment of Rs500 crore, spread over five years, in each. The University Grants Commission (UGC) is expected to coordinate the deployment of funds, set up monitoring systems, and assess progress. Based on public feedback, this announcement may be modified, but the desire of the government to create WCIs is evident.

WCIs are evolved social organizations, either promoted by the state or supported by private funding. The core of any WCI is a group of distinguished academicians. If we go back in time, formal institutions did not exist. But the state created and nurtured learning centres. The scholarship and leadership qualities of the academicians who created the centres influenced their social impact. History is full of several examples of global learning centres in India, China, Greece, and Europe. The life cycles of these learning centres were influenced by the fortunes of the state, but the funding was unconditional. The state took pride in letting academicians pursue what excited them, without regard to the immediate applicability of the knowledge created.

As civilization evolved and formal social systems developed, there was a need to develop formal mechanisms to nurture learning centres. The university/institution is a consequence of this. The academicians who were the core of a WCI had some defining traits. They were individuals with great curiosity. They devoted their lives to what excited them intellectually. Their curiosity was complemented by a desire to explain a phenomenon in its totality. Consequently, there was very little focus on the relevance and the application of the knowledge created. Plurality was the rule of the game. Accordingly, WCIs promoted a range of disciplines that included theatre, literature, music, art, science, medicine and philosophy. As funding was liberal, the pursuit of excellence was purely left to the dreams, curiosity, and creativity of academicians.

As time progressed, the source of funding became broad-based (public, private, and industry). Apart from prestige and brand extension, industry desired a reasonable return on investment. Also, the government sought help and guidance from subject experts to solve challenges faced in managing important public affairs. These ideas shaped the chemistry of WCIs. The attributes that defined WCIs in these times were (a) generous funding by the state, (b) ability to attract and retain top class academicians, and (c) established processes to assemble a set of researchers. This ecosystem contributed to knowledge creation and its application to societal problems. This in turn led to more funding opportunities, thus perpetuating a virtuous cycle. By leveraging the ensemble of outstanding academicians, WCIs enabled their students to realize their full potential in their chosen areas of study.

India, in spite of its rich heritage of learning centres, has not kept pace with changes in global university systems. Some key features of the latter include (a) zero political interference in the appointment of scholars; (b) a fair, transparent and liberal ecosystem for the pursuit of knowledge and its application; (c) opportunity to qualified individuals to pursue their areas of interest; and (d) freedom for students to select the WCI (and a subject) of their choice.

What can India do to enhance the quality of its educational institutions? Knowledge creation and application of knowledge are two paths towards creating WCIs in India. Rapid exposure to world-class knowledge and collaborative research networks with a focus on applying knowledge in the Indian context would be meaningful ways of leveraging state funding and the intellectual capital in our institutions.

Creating WCIs ab initio would need huge investments and a gestation period of at least two decades. One promising alternative is transforming some existing institutes, but this would require effective processes to attract talent, create an ecosystem for knowledge creation and its dissemination, promote meritocracy, offer opportunity to deserving candidates, depoliticize the academic environment, create sustainable global academic networks, forge effective industry collaborations, and bring about change in the attitude of the existing staff. This is easier said than done.

The second alternative is to broad-base the nationally important institutions in terms of their disciplines, provide them liberal funding, encourage them to pursue excellence in research and teaching, and support operational autonomy with well-articulated accountability. The advantage of this option is the ready availability of infrastructure, a well-established reputation in India, reasonable acceptance in the global context, a vibrant set of academicians, and a competent student population.

Yet another alternative is to identify about 100 centres of excellence across the country in various disciplines based on the availability of able academicians with proven records. Such centres may be funded to the tune of about Rs20 crore per year for a period of five years. These centres, housed in existing institutions, would be free to pursue their activities, academically, financially and administratively. The host institutions would provide house-keeping support. The centres would be administered by a peer group created by them, with minimal government interface. They would pursue research, train researchers, deliver graduate and undergraduate courses, create and maintain a global network of researchers pertaining to their specialty, and establish symbiotic relationships with industry and society. A merit-based review of these centres after five years may be used to restructure them. If federated at the national level, the centres will become a structure to create world-class researchers, excellent teachers and scientists who can apply the knowledge created to the problems of relevance to India and the world. Needless to emphasize, these centres would benchmark themselves against the best in the world. In our opinion, such a federation should be considered seriously by the government.

N. Ravichandran is a faculty member of the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad (IIMA). Views expressed are personal. The author thanks N. Sundaravalli, faculty member of IIMA, for helpful conversations during the writing of this article.

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