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Sunday, September 10, 2006

The first sound attempt at doing a good university in India

I have written several times about higher education: December 2005, May 2006, June 2006, August 2006.

On one hand, it is possible to bemoan the things that government does wrong on higher education. But it is perhaps more important to make progress on building good universities - regardless of the constraints. In my opinion, the most important effort at starting a serious university in India is the Indian School of Business. ISB is the first incentive compatible campus on India, where the faculty members get appropriate incentives and resources to perform.

I have heard from some employers that ISB MBAs are superior to IIM MBAs (which is not surprising given their pre-MBA work experience, and the quality of the faculty). The ISB experiment is far from complete. It is only a good MBA program so far. It is not yet clear that it will take root as a genuine research university, going well beyond an MBA to play a role in the intellectual life of the nation. But in a bleak situation with dismal public sector universities, and a State that won't solve long-standing policy mistakes, ISB is the most important experiment in what could happen with universities in India.

In my view, the biggest weakness about ISB is the location. There is no reason for most people to visit Hyderabad :-). In the US, the argument is made that good universities are found in obscure places, so location does not matter that much. But the institutional setting where we are is more like US higher education in 1858 (when MIT was started). At that time, in order to attract the best faculty, the university had to be on the East Coast - that was no time to setup a university in an obscure location like Chicago - the founding date for the University of Chicago was only 1890 or 30 years later.

In similar fashion, I feel that in the India of today, Bombay, Delhi and Bangalore are the natural locations for universities in India, in order to attract the best faculty members and in order to have a meaningful engagement with India.


  1. Hey....Hyderabad is wonderful place - it helps that I grew up there. Too bad you don't seem to travel to Hyderabad. It's your lose.

    I think it is silly to compare horse cart age of 1860s (when Chicago was a small village) and 1890s to 1990s. Sure Indian highways are pretty bad, but one can get to Hyderabad in couple of hours from anywhere in the country by the ever increasing jets - connectivity is just not an issue.

  2. Two puzzles need to be attacked.

    The first is: How do you get the critical mass of good faculty? On day one, a new campus doesn't have faculty. Smart people cluster to where other smart people are, so starting up a cluster from scratch is very difficult. Being close to Bombay or Delhi makes it easier to recruit, for intellectual reasons, for other work reasons, and for personal reasons. Until ISB has a core of faculty going which is strong enough to pull in new recruits, that argument will be in play.

    The second point is the "engagement in India". It is no fun having a great university which is cutoff from India - in that case it might as well be in North Carolina. The story gets interesting when the university starts getting engaged with the country - through consulting, board memberships, participation in policy debates, writing in the media and appearing on TV, etc.

    All that would happen in Bombay or Delhi - but not in Hyderabad. The last time I looked, practically all of India's firms and media and policy making happened out of Bombay and Delhi. For a university to get engaged with real world India, it makes much sense to be near Bombay or Delhi.

    These are not insuperable problems, but as of today, they are genuine problems.

  3. Ajay:

    Good set of posts generally.

    I was raised in Hyderabad. I lived for a year in Bombay and now in Australia.

    I do understand the importance of having a environment for the university to flurish.

    The reason ISB was there was because of Naidu. That was it.

    Bombay would have been the best place, but it did not happen.

    I guess the research university part is just coming around in ISB. it is doing the MBA part well and it does not matter where it is located especially 80% of its lecturers are guest lecturers.

    However, in the long run, living environment matters and Bombay is a hell hole. I would not be surprised if Bombay and Delhi lose their preeminence to B'lore, Hyd or Chennai in the coming decade or so.

    You do have a point, lets wait and see.


  4. * Yes, Bombay is not a nice place to live, but ISB would not have been within Bombay anyway - it would have been a few kilometres into the mainland. That'd have been an excellent scheme.

    * I believe what went wrong with that effort was the Shiv Sena which did not want this to come about as a meritocracy. Generations to come should remember this contribution by the Shiv Sena to Bombay's growth.

    * Yes, to run a pure-teaching MBA program, based on 80% visiting faculty, you can be anywhere. But I don't think anyone would be satisfied at that outcome. What is really exciting is not a teaching shop - what is really exciting is the creation of a research university. This requires full time faculty, and a sustained engagement with India at all three levels of research -- consulting -- policy. These issues are impeded by being away from Bombay or Delhi. Getting top quality faculty is harder, getting the engagement with India is harder, which hurts the research -- consulting -- policy.

    I will be very happy if ISB succeeds, but these are difficult hurdles and it will be hard solving them.


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