India’s universities are feebling away

The University ‘way of life’ is in trouble in India, argues Shahid Jameel*, pointing to the twin maladies of poor governance and trickle funding.

doi:10.1038/nindia.2018.107 Published online 20 August 2018

Shahid Jameel
Derek Bok, the former President of Harvard University famously said, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

Education is both a private and public good. It provides personal gains through employment and entrepreneurship, and gets the state returns through taxation and by creating more engaged, enlightened and responsible citizens. Education builds a reflective mind that discovers from books, dialogues, engagement and experiences.

In his 2017 book Building Universities that Matter, Pankaj Chandra describes the ethos of a university thus: “Universities are places of social development that inspire and provoke, question and answer, build beliefs and destroy myths, that delve into the depths of the past and rise into the heights of the future, that debate the metaphysics of existence, yet create models to decode the mind – the university represents a way of life”.

This ‘way of life’ is in trouble in India.

Employability, innovation, social values

Governments and market forces alone cannot sustain an economy. Markets need innovation and governments need citizens to build social values. If patents are any indication of innovation, India filed less than 5% of patents that China did in 2016. And if social values are the parameter, one sights ‘educated’ Indians throwing garbage on the streets or urinating in public far too often for comfort. Do these indicate a faulty education?

The purpose of a university goes beyond the narrow idea of preparing one for employment. It prepares young men and women to meet life’s challenges, of which earning a livelihood is one. With the nature of work changing faster than ever before, universities must teach people to think, innovate and solve problems. Are Indian universities doing that? The answer is tilted heavily towards the negative.

In 1950-51 there were 27 universities, 578 colleges and 4 lakh students in higher education in India. By 2012-13, India had 712 universities, 36,671 colleges and 296 lakh students. India's Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) – the percentage of 18-23 year olds enrolled in a college or university – is 24.5% . To reach a GER of 50%, India would have to double its present capacity.

These numbers show that higher education has expanded rapidly in India to meet the demands of nation building and of a young population. Such expansion rarely maintains the quality of faculty, teaching programmes, research, infrastructure or processes – a situation ironically inimical towards the country’s young.

Standardisation kills autonomy

To develop and sustain world-class institutions, a country needs three related spokes – autonomy, leadership and funds.

The 19th and early 20th centuries saw the establishment of many prominent colleges and universities in India. Private philanthropy played a significant role in their establishment, and they retained transparent and flexible governance. In the 1950s, the government decided to support these institutions with grants and the University Grants Commission was established, heralding the era of state control of higher education.

Recently, the Government of India announced its intent to replace the UGC with the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI). Will it resurrect the lost autonomy of the universities? What might it do to the funding model of universities?

“Autonomy allows for the simplification of rules; creates local models that work for the institution; and builds a community that makes its own choices and is accountable for it,” writes Pankaj Chandra. The objective should be to standardise outcomes by using variable inputs and processes. Unfortunately, UGC forced Indian universities to do exactly the opposite – standardise their structures and processes without caring for the output. This has led to uniform thinking, low experimentation, and reduced tolerance for diversity. Would HECI be any different?

Critical functions such as hiring and assessment of faculty are faulty in most Indian universities. Hiring is standardised for fear of litigation and is recommended by external experts, who have scant knowledge of the culture or needs of the department or university. Young faculty members get almost no mentoring in teaching, research or institutional culture. There is no reward or reprimand, with personal promotion schemes ensuring that everyone gets promoted irrespective of their ability to teach and research.

Standardisation has led to too much dependence on the numbers of papers and journal impact factors, instead of the content of research, for hiring and promoting faculty. Together with poor writing and communication skills, this has led to widespread plagiarism and the growth of predatory journals – both being against the culture of independent thinking and peer review.

An academic culture thrives in academic freedom and autonomy, excellence and meritocracy, academic conversations and a strong respect for peer review. Many of these are missing from Indian universities.

The governance conundrum

According to management guru Peter Drucker: “Three things happen naturally in organizations: friction, confusion and underperformance. Everything else requires leadership”. In India, the government frequently sends wrong signals by appointing heads of institutions not on the basis of merit but on the basis of their closeness to politicians. Such recruits are fondly referred to as ‘political appointees’ in academic circles.

Institutions are complex in their governance and require clarity in leadership and decision-making. The governance structure at most Indian institutions is hierarchical, with the Director or Vice Chancellor deemed the wisest on campus. Universities are increasingly being headed by inflated egos that consult a close coterie of ‘yes men’. Irreverence is in short supply and hardly a contrarian view is heard in academic and executive councils. This percolates down to departments, research labs and administrative offices, leading to personal agendas, an atmosphere of mistrust and petty competition.

The key to managing a university effectively lies in recognising it as an organisation. And leadership is possibly the most significant aspect of organisational governance. Vision, courage and the ability to execute decisions are key attributes of a leader. A good leader understands the evolving environment and transforms the organisation to meet its goals. This is about courage – believing in something and building a consensus to implement the new. Leaders concentrate powers when they are incapable of convincing others. Those without courage find it convenient to hide behind rules.

Who is the leader accountable to? The over-regulation of universities in India has ensured that the Vice Chancellor is accountable to the UGC under the ministry of human resource development, and thus the political class. But if the university is an organisation, the rules of organisational governance and accountability should apply. The Executive Council is to a university as the Board is to a corporation. But instead of an independent Chair of the Board, the EC is chaired by the Vice Chancellor, which is a conflict of interest. Having sat on the EC of a major university, I can vouch for the energy generated in those rooms. Unfortunately most of it is heat, not light.

The money question

How much should a public university spend per capita? In 2013, US universities spent approaximately $11,000 annually per student, while India on an average spent only about $700. A big difference is that even a state university in US gets only about 25% of its funds from the State; the rest are raised through fees, endowments and consultancy. In India, very little comes from sources other than the government. While most countries spend around 2% of GDP on Research and Development, one half of which comes from the government and the other half from private sources, India spends under 1% all of which comes from the government.

This may change. The India Economic Survey 2017 recognises that India underspends on R&D and a doubling of expenditure is necessary. But, it also says that, “much of the increase should come from the private sector and universities”. One wonders from where the universities will get these funds? Is India prepared for a scenario where the government asks universities to raise even 10% of their running costs? If that happens, public universities would have little left after paying salaries.

Universities in India must start identifying non-government sources of revenue. The growth of philanthropy in India is one potential source. The Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Act requires companies with a turnover of Rs 1000 crore or more to support social causes by giving away 2% of their net profits. Private philanthropy in India has also grown impressively from Rs. 6,000 crores in 2011 to Rs. 36,000 crores in 2016. About half of this goes into the education sector but very little supports higher education. If the university is a social organisation, tasked with preparing the nation’s future, is it not a rightful claimant for this support?

Surveys show that about 50-60% of Indian donors do not know of enough credible organisations to support and would give more if these were transparent and accountable. This is both an opportunity and a challenge. Our universities would have to improve their governance and the government must become an enabler (instead of a controller) of higher education. The functional autonomy that the government is willing to concede must be taken to improve the university’s processes and systems.

The devil is always in the details. 

[ *Shahid Jameel is Chief Executive Officer of The Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance, India. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. ]