Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Alison Richard on "What Makes a World Class University"

Prof. Alison Richard, Vice-Chancellor, Cambridge University, has been on a visit to several Indian universities. Mark Tully interviewed her for the HIndu, and a couple of days ago, she wrote a guest column in the Economic Times. Some excerpts from her column:

But what makes a university world class? [...] In my view, four factors make a university world class. First, it must show a commitment to breadth and excellence in all fields of human inquiry, not simply in a particular niche. Uniform excellence across all fields is an ideal that no university achieves in practice, but it is a fine ambition. One senses that universal, high ambition in great universities, coupled with real excellence in most fields, most of the time.

Second, world class universities engage in cutting-edge research whilst at the same time teaching the next generation, their students. Teaching and research are intrinsically bound together, with top researchers inspiring and mentoring their students. In turn, students themselves inspire and challenge their teachers.

Third, great universities must allow their researchers the freedom to experiment, succeed, and sometimes fail. They must be able to make grand mistakes as well as grand discoveries. It is often through making those mistakes that the grand discoveries are made.

This implies a degree of inefficiency, but it is a necessary inefficiency and a corollary of greatness. A university operating with a completely utilitarian mindset will forego the opportunities that a more open-ended system allows.

Finally, world class universities have permeable boundaries. This means encouraging interdisciplinary research and teaching; it means working with the private sector, for example, fostering and encouraging partnerships with industry; and it means encouraging international collaboration.

Prof. Richard and her team visited IISc two days ago, and she gave a lecture that reiterated and expanded on the views expressed in her column. Sadly, most Indian universities would fail two of the tests of greatness listed by her: coexistence of breadth and excellence, and coexistence of teaching and research. Many of them also fail the fourth test -- their ability to help crossing of disciplinary divisions.

Our 'great' institutions cater to only a few fields on knowledge (IITs for technology, AIIMS for medicine, NLSUI for law, and so on), and most of our 'universities' don't do any undergraduate teaching at all. It is important that we form of new institutions -- or transform existing ones -- so that we do away with these crazy divisions. In other words, what we need, first and foremost, are real universities; we can worry about their 'world-class-ness' later...