There is a curious mismatch between India’s economic prowess and its woeful underperformance in higher education. No Indian university features in any list of top 100 universities. Now the government plans to “do something" about the problem by, of all things, copying a foreign model of excellence.

As reported in Mint on Monday, the human resource development (HRD) ministry plans to create a network of elite universities modelled on the pattern of the so-called Ivy League in the US. There could not have been a more far-fetched idea.

These navratna universities will be selected from the 504 universities across India based on a set of three different parameters. These three variables are university-related (for example, excellence in research in terms of publications, infrastructure, ability to attract foreign students, etc), student-related (quality of teaching, flexibility in academic programmes, quality of students, and so on) and faculty-related (faculty profile measured in terms of international visibility, election to national and international academies, civilian awards, etc).

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

In all top universities globally, there is a tight fit between research excellence and the quality of education imparted to students. This, in turn, is dependent on the ability of universities to attract the best academic talent by offering salaries comparable to what the best private sector job has on offer. All this is topped with the availability of bright students and an environment conducive to research.

This is missing in Indian universities. The big question is: How will the mere relabelling of existing institutions help them. Blatant interference in academic appointments and promotions, putting affirmative action before excellence and extensive inbreeding of faculty, among other factors, has crippled the system. What the ministry has proposed amounts to little more than a refurbished rating system, something that other agencies already do. Even then it is unclear to what extent the government will permit autonomy, for instance, in selecting the faculty and students. It’s inconceivable that any university can do as it pleases and not attract the charge of being elitist. If, however, universities are permitted this freedom, they will in the long-run, attain excellence that eludes them now. There is little reason to doubt that our universities can compete with the best in the world, if only the government were to step aside.

Navratna universities: a misleading idea? Tell us at