Enabling universities in India to attain world-class status

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n Furqan Qamar
Higher educational institutions across the world, when free from filling up forms and filing returns to participate in the global ranking system, are busy organising and attending seminars, conferences, and workshops on ranking to learn the tricks of the trade to improve their stature in the future. Universities in India have been no exception. Consequently, the participation of higher educational institutions in global rankings has risen over time, even though none have been able to breach the barriers for being counted amongst the top 100 universities of the world.
It should give us solace that at least one university from India has found mention, albeit at a lowly rank of 301-400, in the Shanghai-based Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), which is known for a very high weightage since it has Nobel laureates and Field Medal awardees amongst the faculty and alumni. Even more gratifying is the fact that 24 and 42 Indian universities are ranked amongst the top 1000 universities of the world by the QS and the Times Higher Education (THE) ranking, respectively. Even though none could make it to even top 200 universities in THE ranking, at least three of our higher education institutions have been ranked amongst the top 200 universities of the world, by the recently released QS Ranking 2019.
Given the exacting standards of ranking, it seems like a long shot that even the best of our universities could be ranked amongst the top 100 by ARWU. What needs to be done at the governmental level, particularly by the central government, is clearly discernible from the analysis of the data reported by the ranking agencies themselves. Role of the central government is critical because all the eight higher educational institutions that are amongst the top 500 of the QS ranking, including two which are amongst the top 500 of THE ranking, are centrally funded public higher educational institutions.
Even if we take all the higher education institutions ranked amongst the top 1000 universities of the world, the proportion of public-funded higher educational institutions is predominant (18 out of 24 in QS and 31 out of 42 in THE).
A comparison of the best-ranked Indian higher education institutions with the best-ranked universities of the world, clearly point to the following deficiencies that have to be addressed to enable our higher education institutions to breach the barrier to be counted amongst the top 100 universities of the world.
Firstly, the best-ranked universities of the world have, on an average, a student population of 18,000 per university. In comparison, the best-ranked Indian universities are operating at a much smaller scale, averaging at around 11,000 students per institution. Besides, the best universities of the world have a good mix of undergraduate and postgraduate students, with Masters and Research Degree students constituting a sizeable section of their student population, thereby ensuring a critical mass of students which, in turn, promote better graduation outcome, research, and reputation.
Secondly, the best-ranked universities in the world have a large pool of highly qualified, talented and committed faculty such that on an average each university has over 1,800 regularly appointed full-time faculty. In contrast, the number of full-time faculty even in the best-ranked universities of India averages at around 600. Thus, not only the student-teacher ratio in the best of our higher educational institutions is almost double the ratio prevalent amongst the best-ranked universities of the world, our institutions also lose out on the critical mass of the faculty and researchers, which is so critical to quality and excellence.
Finally, and most critically, the best universities of the world, on an average, spend over $1,68,000 per student, per year. In sharp contrast, the average spending per student by the best-ranked higher educational institutions in India is just above $7,000. Even in terms of purchasing power parity, the best of our universities spend no more than PPP $28,000 per student, per year. Thus, the investment gap between our higher educational institutions is huge as compared to what is invested by the world-class universities. Indeed, excellence comes at a high cost but at the same time, high investment in higher education very quickly repays in terms of the growth in the economy through enhanced research, publication, patent, innovation, entrepreneurship and employability.
There are at least 40 universities in the country that have the potential and given the infusion of heavy investment and enabling environment, quite a few of them could bring us back the laurels of being world class.
The author is the Secretary General, Association of Indian Universities. Views expressed are personal.

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