Prime Minister rendra Modi, while addressing the centery celebrations of Pat University recently, rued the “blot” that Indian universities still did not figure even among the top 500 in the world and announced his government’s decision to grant autonomy and an amount of Rs 10,000 crore to the top 10 public and private universities in the country over the next five years to make them world-class institutions of higher education. The announcement could not have come at a better time, given the rot that has only made us a subject of increasing derision in the eyes of the intertiol intellectual community even as we are never tired of announcing our iuguration as a knowledge society of global reckoning. No doubt we have neighbouring Chi in our mind to compare with, but how can one gloss over the fact that Beijing University is a truly world-class institution of innovative teaching and research, earning patents that are globally acknowledged as one of the best ones to emate from Asia? How can we overlook another world-class institution, Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, one of the best 30 in the world? How can we then be also oblivious of Tokyo University that has been excelling in quality research in both humanities and sciences all along? Remember, we are talking of Asian hubs of higher education, not the best ones in the West such as Cambridge, Harvard, Oxford, Glasgow, Warwick, Edinburgh, Princeton, Stanford, Yale and their ilk that have had their share of free educatiol flourish of the most innovative kind due solely to them being autonomous and free from fincial woes. These are institutions that have produced the most marvellous of Nobels in Physics, Chemistry, Medicine and Economics. And where do we stand in comparison even as we dwell on the most hyped ones such as the IITs, the IIMs and the IISc, Bangalore? How many Nobels have these brought to us? In sciences, barring CV Raman, the other two India-born Nobel laureates in sciences, S Chandrasekhar (Physics) and Hargobind Khora (Medicine) were products from the Western soil, and the only one in Economics so far, Amartya Sen’s toil was in Cambridge, him having served as the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. These are bitter pills we are obliged to swallow as we seem helpless to compete with the best varsities in the world in terms of teaching and research. Therefore, Modi, as a man with some radical ideas that our political leadership is acutely short of, has floated the right initiative.
The Right Varsity Road
The Prime Minister’s idea is one of working on a scheme for the top 10 universities of the country – both public and private, interestingly – by granting them autonomy so that they grow and evolve into world-class institutions with freedom from the shackles of typical government rules and regulations. What is encouraging to hear from him is that the method of selection to list such universities will be on the basis of a challenge in which they need to prove their mettle, not on any recommendation. The basis will be factors like history, performance and their roadmaps to reach global benchmarks. Another welcome augury is that a third-party professiol agency will be involved in the selection process. It will be interesting to see who this third-party will be and on what merits it will be picked up for such an ambitious programme. It will also be interesting to see whether public universities will form the majority in the proposed list of 10 or whether some of our most promising private ones will steal the show. Secondly, the Prime Minister has also pointed to the tardy pace of the country’s educatiol reforms and differences among its educationists that have hampered innovation in education. In this context it will be recalled how the Manmohan Singh government had set up the much-vaunted tiol Knowledge Commission, headed by country’s telecom innovator Sam Pitroda and backed by eminent IT entrepreneurs like ndan Nilekani of the Infosys fame and intertiolly acclaimed political scientists like Pratab Bhanu Mehta of the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, only for the commission to come up with very radical recommendations to overhaul our entire higher education system and for the government to eventually not pay any heed at all to their sagacious suggestions. The commision’s tale is an old one now, and many experts in the field of higher education lament that our political-bureaucratic leadership, mostly muddled in outfashioned ideas, has already forgotten the whole of it! Given the reality, therefore, what the Prime Minister has now suggested needs total support from all political parties across the board without them having to indulge in the routine and shoddy politics of blame and counter-ideas just for the sake of opposing an idea whose time had actually come about two decades ago when India entered the 21st century with a bang of being on the irreversible road to a world-class knowledge society.
This brings us to the Northeast situation of higher education. Most of the universities in the region, barring of course IIT-Guwahati and Tezpur University – both central institutions that have of late come up with research methodologies of global standard – are in a state of stagtion in terms of both teaching and research innovation. Even the oldest in the region, Gauhati University, has not had to its credit what it was established for – to be the torchbearer of high-quality teaching and research in a region woefully lacking in such engagements. The question now is whether any of the universities from this region would make it to the coveted list of 10 as envisioned by the Prime Minister. In fact the question is whether any of these institutions, baring perhaps IIT-Guwahati and Tezpur University that are relatively young and dymic entities, are capable of taking the challenge to be in that list by proving by their academic and research worth. This will then inform us of the level of higher education that the development-starved Northeast is blessed with. Time will tell. And wait we must.