If you are going to hit the 'next' button on your feed reader, or on your browser, please -- please, please -- don't! I have a simple survey question at the end of this post; could you please answer it for me in the comments. You don't even have to read the rest of this post!
Let us also get one more thing out of the way: if you want to know why we need some real universities, I suggest that you read this Pharyngula Advisory for the new students entering his university.
First, let me define a real university (RU): it is an institution where faculty carry out cutting edge research in a variety of fields and teach undergraduate students (UGs). The key terms are UG teaching, research, and a variety of fields.
This definition of a RU rules out IITs, since they offer UG programs only in a few disciplines -- engineering and natural sciences. There is also another reason why the IIT-model is being thrown out from our consideration here: This model -- though, not the IITs themselves -- has serious inherent disadvantages. Essentially, the cost of running an IIT is just too much, and almost all of it comes from the government; since the government's education-related pie is small, the expensive business of replicating the IITs -- creating new ones -- is rather unviable. Add to it the opposition from the IITs' vocal -- very, very vocal -- supporters and constituents (alumni, current faculty and students), who claim that creating new IITs 'dilutes' their brand equity, I think it is going to be impossible. Bottomline: the IIT-model has bad genes.
The most common current model in Indian higher ed, which I like to refer to as the hub-and-spoke (HS) model, should also be ruled out from our consideration. Why ? In this model, UG teaching is farmed out (outsourced?) to the spokes, the affiliated colleges. If you want to know what the problems with this model are, do take a look at to-day's Hindu op-ed by V.C. Kulandaiswamy. He has been Vice Chancellor at three universities (Madurai Kamaraj, Anna and IGNOU), and you better listen up when he says that the system of affiliated colleges -- in other words, the hub-and-spoke model -- must be eliminated from this blessed land of ours!
Before going further, let us step back a bit, and examine what we look for in a RU. First, it must offer UG, PG and research programs in many disciplines, including natural sciences, engineering, social sciences and liberal arts. Faculty's teaching commitments must not be so large that their research suffers. The student community must be representative of all of India.
If such a university were to be set up, the question is: can it be set up and run without any assistance from the government (except the initial help in the form of a land grant)? If so, what kind of fees would an UG student have to pay ? I am assuming that PG and research students will have to be supported, because they will have to do a bit of teaching and tutoring; thus, they will not contribute any revenue to our RU.
Warning: If you don't enjoy math and symbols and equations, it is okay to skip the next few paragraphs, and go to the last few. I have put in a flag that says "Notice: you can take a deep breath now; the bad part is over!", from where you can pick up the discussion ;-)
Let us look at the financial requirement of our RU. If sustaining each faculty requires F rupees, and if there are N students per faculty, then this component of the cost per student would be F/N. Add to it the cost S that arises simply because of the presence of the student. This leads to a simple formula for the cost C per student:
C = S + F / N.
What are my estimates for S and F? I estimate them to be S = 20 K per student per year, and F = 2 M (that is 2 million or 20 lakhs) per faculty. The number N of students per faculty is the final variable that we need to arrive at. For N = 20, we get a cost of C = 120 K per student per year. On the other hand, if N = 40, we get a cost of C = 70 K per student per year.
Now, add a nice, large premium of about 40 to 50 % to account for my ignorance of finance, economics, and many, many other things. Some of you may want to use an even higher premium; please do so, and arrive at your own figures! With a 40 to 50 percent premium, I get a figure of 180 K for N = 20 and 100 K for N = 40.
I think, the latter scenario, with 40 students per faculty is a good compromise, since it amounts to about 10 students per year per faculty (for a 4 year undergraduate programme). It also gives you a lower cost per student. Of course, you can reduce the cost C further by increasing N, but the cost does not go down quite proportionally. For example, increasing N to 80 gives you about 70 K per student, and not 50 K per student. This is because there is a certain cost S ( = 20 K to 30 K ) associated with each student, independent of other things.
Notice: you can take a deep breath now; the bad part -- with strange financial and mathematical arcana -- is over!
Finally, here are two requests: First, think of this post as the first step of an online collaborative project. Feel free to criticize it. In particular, do please go through the finance and economics and math arguments, and check if what I say makes sense, and if I have underestimated or overestimated financial requirements. Second, I request you to please -- please, please -- answer my question below; leave your answer in the comments.
Here is the BIG question: Would you pay 100 K (1 lakh) rupees per year for UG education in such a RU ? In other words, what is the 'price' you are willing to pay for a UG program in each of the following disciplines: (a) engineering, (b) natural sciences, (c) social sciences, and (d) languages, philosophy and classics.
Update: I originally had some associated material here at the end. However, I have moved them over to the first comment.