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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The recipe for building high quality universities

With the removal of Arjun Singh from the Ministry of HRD, there is a prospect of genuine change in Indian higher education. The importance of this has been written about extensively. As an example, see Shekhar Gupta in Indian Express.

While most of us agree that India needs better universities, there is less clarity on how to set about achieving better universities. In Indian Express today, Ila Patnaik draws on the knowledge of a new NBER working paper titled The Governance and Performance of Research Universities: Evidence from Europe and the U.S. by Philippe Aghion, Mathias Dewatripont, Caroline M. Hoxby, Andreu Mas-Colell and Andre Sapir. This carries the discussion forward by identifying specific elements of the design of the institutional environment which will induce high quality universities.

A quick summary of the five ingredients which matter:

  1. No government approval required for budget; budget-making happens at the university and university alone.
  2. Reduced government role in the core funding of the university.
  3. High inequality of wages: two academics of the same seniority and rank should get different wages.
  4. Full flexibility in recruitment of students.
  5. A big role for competitive processes for gaining funding for research.


  1. I am not sure I understand what 'high quality' means. And that is because I am not sure what the goals of these new universities (that are going to be built) should be. If there already exists a consensus on that in the relevant academic circles dealing with planning and governance, I'd like to understand what that consensus is first, before I can apply my mind to the question of 'recipe'.

    In my perspective, there is a difference between 'education' and 'skills training'. If we are looking at the future labour force of India, and feel an urgent need to ensure that it gets 'tooled' in a way as to derive maximum economic benefit in the global economy of the future, then that's one approach (assuming, of course, that we are also able to envision what the global economy will look like in the short / medium / long term and that the resources required to prepare our youth for that future exist and are available to us). In this case, the emphasis will probably be on technical and vocational training.

    If on the other hand we want to produce a more 'educated' India in the future, we might approach this a little differently. In this case the emphasis will most likely be on the liberal arts and environmental issues. The IITs are not really universities, because they are mostly focused on imparting skills training.

    A bit blotchy, but this is just a comment, not a detailed essay or thesis :) Maybe I will develop the thought further in a separate blog post.

    On a related note - re: your point #3 ... perhaps you meant "could" instead of "should"?

  2. Oh and BTW ... forgot to mention this TED video clip and to paste the link. Here it is -

    If we take a 'blue sky' approach, we might want to look at the entire question of education from first principles.

  3. No, I meant "should", given the inevitable dispersion of human capabilities. Equality of capabilities amongst 10 professors is an outcome of measure zero.

  4. Here's an interesting model for a "high quality university" defined from a certain perspective - their high level course structure is here -

  5. copy pasting other peoples experience without understanding and disregard of context is recipie for disaster. Rote learners come up rote policies.

    why this haterade for govt funding. Research is filled with uncertainty. Big science is so costly, govt alone has the ability to bear the risk.
    what we need is
    0. Intellectual freedom
    without which other five will produce grotesque results.
    Pvt funding doesn't have "0" as its goal. It is orthogonal to 0. for ex, see IBM & gaurav sabnis

  6. This is what I wrote to SG in response to his article referred here by Ajay:

    Centre can pave the path by having good regulations.State governments and private enterprises can also do their bit. e.g, look at Gandhinagar in Gujarat which is fast emerging as an education hub through progressive setting up of premier institutes like DA-IICT, Nirma, NIFT,NID,IIT , Deen Dayal Petroleum University(which has the potential to emerge as one of the best full fledged universities in India),and other institutes in the pipeline including Maritime university, NLUSI(Law University), Biotech, Management institue from symbiosis Pune.

    What also warrants attention is the negligible role being played by Indian corporates in Higher education sector. We do have a Vedanta university coming up, a BITS setup ages ago and a Manipal University. Also recently setup Jindal Law School and Goenka University with their sky high fee. But where is the equivalent of Carnegie Mellon University?Cannot we have 20 worldclass universities in Indian private sector? Cannot Murthy do a Carnegie or Ratan Tata a Jamsetji Tata by doing for undergrad education what Jamsetji did for post grad education?

  7. Cannot we have 20 worldclass universities in Indian private sector?

    Not until the entry barriers that prevent private universities are removed.

    why this haterade for govt funding. Research is filled with uncertainty. Big science is so costly, govt alone has the ability to bear the risk.

    Government funding is not wrong, what is wrong is the way in which it is channeled. See the NBER paper carefully. If government funds are delivered in a meritocratic way, through a competitive research grants process, and if the government has no say in how the university is run, particularly when it comes to interference with the HR processes of hiring/firing/compensating faculty and the procesess of recruiting students, then government funding is good.

  8. india can never have world class education because india lacks capital. period. i went to a university in india (the so called "bombay university") which sounds nice to foreigners but really it means it is a crappy building in our countrys major mega city which has "FRANCHISED" the title 'bombay U' from some bureaucrat in UGC somewhere. it had no campus. there was one (!) set of encyclopedia britannica in "library" but it was kept under lock and key. it required "permission" from professor to access it!

    ccourse material was a jjoke.
    competition for admission was INTENSE.
    I can only say 2 things:

    1) thank god for america or indian babus would have killed my career.

    2) thank godd for western development of the web. No indian site has any useful information except till late (in the monkey the west mode).

    jay ho.

  9. Not sure how or why this topic gravitated to anecdotes on how bad the general scene in India is. I am not going to argue whether in reality it is as bad as claimed in these last few comments, or better or worse.

    However, here's what I humbly offer, in response to those comments, as food for thought: for every Indian who decides to migrate to a better place and a better life, we have one less Indian who (potentially) could have stayed back and helped in improving the situation, so that his/her children don't have to migrate to a better place to seek a better life. As someone (Burke?) once observed, all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

  10. "there is less clarity on how to set about achieving better universities"

    I believe the ingredients have been known for a long time. I'm sure that you will agree that the only clarity needed is whether we have the political will to ring in the changes. As it has been for a long, long time; ingredient 0 is to have HyperActiveX's "a few good men" in the government to make the changes you have mentioned.

    I can't resist posting these two links from another economist which clearly indicate the "economic" argument behind the problems:
    Education and Corruption
    Unwelcome competition in Education

    These links help with the pre-requisite understanding of the situation. And, hopefully adds to your post in the sense of motivating your 5 point reform suggestion.

    I do not know why you would leave out key super-ingredients such as: reform of the licensing system and opening up of investment avenues (allowing foreign investment)?

  11. Thanks Vivek for those 2 links. Why is the problem of corruption in higher education gets so inadequate attention? I hope we see more of these sting operations and whistle blowers coming out in the open. As against other specialised forms of corruption like contracts and tenders, corruption in education stands at a very sticky wicket and by necessity, the agents and brokers have to deal with complete novices every year.
    We might already have reached a point where education through corrupt practices is more expensive with lesser RoI than that in a foreign university.If citizens are more vocal and media more active, we can give a decisive death blow to this ossification.

  12. again, the indian predisposition to dominate and plan everrrything to the tee and inability to fund anything in top-down design comes through. We are not talking brahmanical rocket science here!

    there is plenty of cutting edge material, texts, to be "taught". do u have the abillity to find the teachers? can u fund what u teach (will your libraries have multiple texts on each subject?) will copy machines be available on campus? laser printers in libraries for studentss to print extracctss? can u have FREEDOM to cultivate an OPEN enquiring culture on the educational campus? can we have student life where studeentss don't participate in community based p0wer cliques to get ahead?

    All likely to be answered in the negative...meanwhilewe we can bring in hazaar "elite" civil servvants to argue about how the MONEY should be spent, the "purpose" of the university etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.

    really, the thread makes clear the need to migrate! if we are asking such "basic" questions....just migrate. the "dialogue" will get nowhere. sorry but true.

  13. Thanks for an excellent article on higher education. I strongly agree on Point 2 and 5. I don't have any idea about Point 1. I would like to point out the statement from paper " On the other hand, at least half the universities in countries like France, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland report that they must pay the same amount to faculty with the same seniority and rank." All these countries have high quality universities or institutes. However, i believe that academic should have opportunities to increase his (her) wages through various outlets. For example, France allows academic to affiliate himself (or herself) to multiple institutes. Point 4 is not applicable to India at all due to different social structure.

    One has to understand that India is a different country as compare to rest of the world in many aspects for example population, infrastructure, mind set etc.. Our dynamics is not comparable with western in many ways. We have to device a plan which suits us rather than emulating the westerners. On other hand, it doesn't mean that we do not learn the best aspects from them for example governance, positive attitude etc. I came across an excellently written article on "Higher education revolution in china".
    Please find the following link:

    Government of India should come with pragmatic plans rather than political gimmick. Personally I prefer to empower existing universities than opening new IITs . However, Recent news indicates that HRD ministry may allow private players, is a first step towards this direction. Our dream (at least my) of universal education for all and at all level requires quality private players. Government interference in this process should be minimum however, i believe that government should take a role of side actor (regulatory level) than a leading actor.

  14. Check the below article from former chief economist of IMF on finance industry has captured the governments. good lengthy article .

    Maulik Patel

  15. It was so interesting reading what you have written and peoples comments. There was one common thread through it. That was we don't what quality education is. I would want to summarize my opinion in a few points (drawn through my experiences with utter disregard and disrespect for the ones who tow others ideas) :-
    1. We don't know where to use our knowledge.
    2. We don't understand what we study.
    3. Our education system is marks or GPA driven.
    4. We have no direction in which the science, arts and other fields of study have to go in, especially with the view of nation building.
    5. cutting govt funding is not the solution, differential pay doesn't help (pretty soon we will have Ramar Pillai coming to get the higher pay).
    5. Lastly the country the youth the teachers and the intellegentia has to turn its mindset from BPO or support industry based future growth to more solid knowledge and science based growth and approach.

    As a nation it is not sufficient to be self sufficient we also need to be self reliant.

  16. Dear Mr. Shah,

    Read your views on Moneycontrol today...You have called for rate cuts as India is in Deflation...

    But where is deflation? my cost of living has gone up no less then 10% in the past one year...Has your cost of living gone up or down? I am sure the cost of living for millions of Indians has gone up...It needs no economics...I can sit at home and calculate...

    So by cutting rates the RBI would essentially be penalizing would result in loss of purchasing power for people who make bank deposits...

    Can you explain where is deflation? I can see only inflation...If needed I will give you a list of consumer products and the inflation in prices...

    You can also check out the CPI...It shows no deflation...We dont go out and buy steel and crude or any other industrial product...

    We buy food, we need healthcare...for all these there is inflation...Rate cuts is a horrible idea in my opinion...

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