An Imaginary Exercise: Building An University from Scratch
The university project should start with building a community. The accreditation will invariably require land and buildings etc., which has to be there; but most universities miss the point that it is the people who make the institution. And, contrary to some of the prestige universities, it is not just about attracting a few big name researchers on fancy salaries, as Clark Kerr so succinctly observed that the prestige of the faculty is negatively correlated with the teaching quality of the university. The idea will be to attract a team of gifted teachers and thinkers with a common aim of providing good education. I have recently been talking to an university in Andhra Pradesh which seemed to have based its strategy on attracting the sons of the soil from all over the world: They are wooing researchers, but also practitioners and educators. I think this should be the starting point of building a good university, pooling people together with a singular aim of providing good education.
2. Align the Infrastructure with the message
While I took the place and the infrastructure for granted, they play an important role. Most universities I see in India has grand looking buildings from outside but unimaginative interiors: They are often true reflection of their owners' interests, who, being Real Estate men, wanted to make the buildings attractive looking but had no clue about the classroom environments other than they should contain chairs and tables. On the other hand, however, an university's interiors can have powerful brand messages. Imagine classrooms arranged as conference rooms, which may restrict capacity but emphasize the message of small classrooms and personalised tutoring.
3. Price Confidently and Transparently
No one seems to be talking about personalised tutoring because, in India, the Higher Education is a low price business. But it does not have to be: It needs to be legitimate, but not cheap. In fact, the most expensive education one can receive is the one which does not work, and the university must strive hard to escape the low price trap: Because the students pay less, the education is worthless, which leads to students not wanting to pay any higher. While I am cognizant that the private universities in India are non-profit entities, but this is not about profit: The university should aim to earn a legitimate surplus which can cover its continuing development. Besides, education being such an intangible, the only sensible pricing strategy for education is to price it reasonably high and then deliver a great education, rather than getting stuck at the low price (or to fail by charging a high price and not delivering anything at all). Once the pricing is done right, it will then be important to stick to it. One of the most problematic practices in India (and one that is harmful to the brand) is the practice of allowing students with less merit to get in for an additional fee. While some people may raise eyebrows about my suggestion on higher pricing, they would possibly agree that rewarding merit through scholarships (next suggestion) is better than giving seats for an additional 'donation'.
4. Reward Merit
The idea of right pricing should also factor in that in a country like India, there could be huge gaps in ability and willingness to pay. The higher (adequate) pricing would leave a lot of people behind invariably. It is important for the university, therefore, to institute a fair, transparent and appropriate scholarship scheme for the meritorious students. Indeed, the scholarship should be means tested, and while this sounds difficult in India, this can be achieved if the university community is committed to merit and inclusion.
5. Focus Course Offerings
The university must be different. It is amazing how quickly the Indian students aspirations are shifting and the university must anticipate and respond to this. Design is on the rise and IT means different things today than it did a few years ago. The Indian employers are on the look out for creative thinkers and project managers rather than warm bodies who can code, and the university must take this into account. It is incredibly hard to be different, as this needs courage and imagination, but it is also incredibly easy, because students are saying what they want rather loudly and once the university has listened to them and mastered the courage, it becomes a clear field because such common sense is really so uncommon.