Towards World-class Varsities

Published: 10th May 2014 02:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 10th May 2014 12:47 AM   |  A+A-

The ranking of the top 100 world universities published by the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) in 2014 includes none from India. Panjab University (PU) is the only Indian entrant in the 226-250 bracket. IIT Delhi, IIT Kanpur, IIT Kharagpur and IIT Roorkee are all behind it in the 351-400 segments. The survey finds 15 Asian universities from China, South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong occupying respectable places.

On India’s poor performance, THES editor Phil Baty comments, “We believe research is the key to building reputation. India seems to be more focused on teaching, building capacity and bringing in more students.”

Entering the league of top-class elite universities isn’t achieved by self-declaration; rather, the elite tag is granted by the international academic community on the basis of global recognition. Over the years, systematic ways of classifying world-class varsities have emerged. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2013-2014 powered by Thomson Reuters are the only global performance tables to judge world-class universities across all of their core missions—teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook. The top rankings employ 13 crucial performance indicators to provide the most balanced comparisons available. Compiled by Thomson Reuters, the World Reputation Rankings 2014 are based on responses from about 10,500 leading peer-reviewed academics in 133 countries, who were asked to nominate up to 15 of the best institutions in their field of expertise. The latest Times Higher Education rankings on universities under the age of 50 shows that East Asian institutions dominate the top five. India entered the list for the first time with the inclusion of IIT Guwahati.

Concerns over rankings provoke a range of responses from the nascent higher education sector in developing countries. It is generally recognised that national growth and competitiveness are increasingly driven by knowledge and that varsities play a key role in knowledge creation. Knowledge and its application lead to technological dynamism and innovations, leading to economic development. It is but natural that many countries focus on empowering their top universities to operate at the higher domains of intellectual and scientific development.

World-class universities turn out well qualified graduates who are in high demand in the labour market; they conduct cutting-edge research published in top scientific journals; and science and technology-oriented institutions contribute to innovations through patents and licences. As Philip G Altbach of Boston University has pointed out, top-notch varsities feature highly qualified faculty, excellence in research, quality teaching, high levels of government and non-government funding sources, international and highly talented students, academic freedom, well-defined autonomous governance structures, and well-equipped facilities for teaching, research, administration, and student life. Jamil Salmi, a former World Bank expert on higher education, in a World Bank report has summarised the essential attributes of excellence as (a) a high concentration of talent (faculty and students), (b) abundant resources to offer a rich learning environment and conduct advanced research, and (c) favourable governance features that support strategic vision, innovation and flexibility, and enable to make decisions and to utilise resources without being encumbered by bureaucracy.

Salmi suggests three basic strategies to set up world-class universities. “(1) Governments could consider upgrading a small number of existing universities that have the potential of excelling (picking winners) (2) Governments could encourage a number of existing institutions to merge and transform into a new university that would achieve the type of synergies corresponding to a world-class institution (hybrid formula) (3) Governments could create new world-class universities from scratch.”

A world-class university requires, above all, strong leadership, a bold vision of its mission and goals, and a clear strategic plan to translate the vision into concrete targets and programmes. Ambitious varsities continuously analyse their strengths and weaknesses and rigorously implement new strategies and plans. But in India many are complacent in their approach, lack committed leadership and ambitious vision for better performance. Improvement and reforms in our education system are fraught with difficulties relating to policy and regulatory environment.

The setting up of 14 world-class varsities of excellence under the MHRD’s “brain gain” policy in the 11th plan (2007-2012) has not shown much improvement. The slow reform process and policy paralysis in India’s development scenario has affected the higher education sector, too. A severe lack of urgency and small investment capabilities are also retarding factors.

If we are determined to establish top-ranking universities, the best strategy will be to create new ones. It may be costly but the opportunities to start everything anew will be a great bonus. India has to opt for a strategy suiting its strengths and resources. We may benefit more from an initial focus on developing the best national universities. They would address the diverse learning and training needs of the domestic student population and economy.

India, with its 600 varsities and 35,000 colleges, is the world’ third largest education system. With a severe crunch of quality higher education institutions, India has to face the challenge of offering education to nearly 30 per cent of its 1.2 billion people. India requires several more institutions of higher learning since nearly 100 million students will enter the higher education market in the next 10 years. The setting up of a few top-ranking universities at the national level should be encouraged urgently in an environment where 73 per cent of the colleges and 68 per cent of the universities are found to be of medium or low quality by Indian standard itself. For shortage of good academic institutions, thousands of meritorious students prefer foreign varsities. According to a recent report, Indians are spending nearly $1 billion on higher education abroad. This drain on scarce national resources could be reduced considerably if we are capable of providing world-class educational opportunities in India.

The best practices followed in other Asian top-ranking universities and India’s PU and IIT Guwahati could be emulated. Finally, it should be recognised that outstanding teachers who can make substantive contributions to teaching and research create world-class universities.

The writer is professor of economics at Christ University, Bangalore, and can be reached at

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