A Great Indian University: Starting The Conversation

I discussed some ideas about how a new Indian university could be imagined (See Imagining A New Indian University and Imagining A New Indian University: Part 2). As the university creation reaches a fever pitch in India, with states jumping in to grant university licenses, this discussion is relevant enough to indulge in. Many new universities have started out without a clear sense of purpose, or even a sustainable 'business model' other than build-it-and-they-will-come, an assumption based on India's swelling student population but one that underestimates the essentially pragmatic nature of Indian students. An urgent debate about what an university should be needs to happen in India.

At the very basic level, the new Indian universities should approach the Education and Employment gap. This need is well understood - with students demanding 'placement' and universities bending over backwards to attract employers - but the methods of it are often muddled. Well-endowed universities are putting in a lot of sales efforts, formally or informally, trying to attract one employer or the other to their campuses; however, very little could be seen in terms of employer engagement in curriculum development or teaching processes, and almost nothing in research. The universities, whose licenses were primarily granted as the government struggled to find ways to make the country's young population productive, fail their essential purpose when they can't make their students productive and employable. 

If this failure demonstrates a fundamental lack of engagement, one should know that making students employable only a part of an university's agenda, even if this was the most explicit goal at the time of their creation. The employer demands are always shifting, and they are even more dynamic today as the globalisation and technologies of automation are reaching a tipping point. The shifts in the jobs and careers make the failure of imagination in Indian universities appear in sharper relief: Their failure to be relevant for the present is amplified by the absence of any views about the future. The curriculum, even in those rare cases where employers were consulted, fails to go beyond the HR Managers' specifications for here-and-now requirements; there is no frame of reference that the university may provide.

Finally, the lack of engagement with the present and absence of imagination about the future is expectedly supplemented by emptiness as far as a sense of the past is concerned. Apart from borrowing some phrases from the Western counterparts, one being 'Liberal Arts', Indian universities have done little to define what values they stand for, or indeed, if they should stand for any values at all. The conversation in the universities are about the net worth of the parents rather than what the learning is worth, and the students in most cases are not troubled by debates such as creationism versus evolution, because their world seemed to have started from their rich fathers (or in most cases, rich grandfathers). 

Yet, Indian universities, if they are successful, could represent a model for the entire developing world. China has traversed the path already and created great universities, but the Chinese model, given its social, political and financial peculiarities, are hardly replicable. The surplus demand, the millions of young people seeking education, makes Indian universities to be so complacent, but this could be their great strength in creating world class institutions once they have found themselves a purpose. Like the Indian software companies, which are caught into the opportunistic services trap and are mostly unable to create products or brands, the Indian university culture is busy with industrial scale teaching exercise, but nothing else. The difference, however, between these two sectors is that while the software businesses have to seek out the market and this makes the investment in products and brands so risky, the Indian universities are sitting on world's largest and fastest growing Higher Education market, and wasting the opportunity. They have the ultimate disruptive opportunity to change Higher Education as it is done, yet the best they can do is to ape the Western universities, though their operating environment and historical realities are completely different.

This sets the context of a new conversation: Is it at all possible to create a great university in India? What does one mean by a great university? What does it take to create one? Can this be created without endless amounts of money? Do the new universities must follow the historical model, or should they imagine the idea of an university all over again? What is the role of public policy in facilitating the creation of a great university?  I am hoping that, with my renewed engagements with India and Indian Higher Ed, I can engage in this conversation, which I shall report, hopefully, on this blog.


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