Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Model for a real university

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.


  1. Anonymous said...

    In order to reduce the length of the post, and still provide relevant information, I am putting all the "end-note" type of stuff here in this comment.

    PS: To put this figure of Rs. 1 lakh per student per year in perspective, the Karnataka government has ordered the unaided engineering colleges in the State to charge a fee of not more than about 29 K. Those colleges, of course, have obtained a Supreme Court stay on implementing this order. They have, apparently, put in a request (based on their own internal cost estimates) for permission to charge the students anywhere between 60 K and 120 K. I am sure I don't have to tell you that there is a huge gap between an unaided engineering college and the RU that I have described here.

    Update (19 May 2005): I added two paragraphs at the beginning.

    Here are a few other relevant links; I hope to make a separate post on them sometime: Satya's blog on Education in India is an extremely wonderful resource for anyone interested in the subject. He has collected a whole lot of news and views, and organized them on this site. He himself has been an advocate of many reforms in education. Here is a link to his article where he ruminates on the revenue requirements and expenditure patterns of a RU. He doesn't give figures, but gives you a list of things that you will need to consider when you need to do micro planning. And, Satya has also blogged about V.C. Kulandaiswamy's op-ed, and about the Deepak Nayyar interview.

  2. Anonymous said...

    simple answer yes why not! student loans are easily available so large sections can get into the RU... But will this RU guarantee a job to the person joining the system ?? and a job that pays him/her enough to be able to repay the education loan easily... i have never heard anyone(who has got admission not Murlimanohar joshi) complain about the high fees at IIMs... people take loans because they are assured of a high paying job.
    oh i HAVE to comment on the IIT bit (being part of the very very vocal suporter class ;) )
    IIT system is far from perfect agreed but brushing them aside as providing only "engg and natural sciences" is atleast 2-3 year old view all iits have management schools, humanities depts are planning to start new stuff eg. dual degree in linguistics etc. basically iits (thanks to all the media glare) have started leveraging their brand to widen their base.
    I feel that indian administrators dont do anything until there is an absolute crisis (they hardly have any other option)and education is one field that is in serious crisis right now - not because our present system is bad for it has been like this for quite some time.. but the situation has become a serious crisis because there are now enough number of people who WANT good education because the benifits are clear and visible to larger and larger sections of the society.
    finally you did a lot of cost analysis which is ok but what about the human capital if you open this univ of yours why will i join it as a student or as a prof ? i mean how will the thing boot strap itself how will it gain initial grip ? i dont expect much from the govt.

  3. Anonymous said...

    My greater query is how will such an university (or universities) be set up? Do you think an existing university is hauled up from the bottom, or a new one is created/built? And sustaining a university with tuition fees alone is almost impractical. What incentives will be available for grants, and how much "endowment" money will be available? How about tapping into the wider community? Such questions abound.
    I will be quite happy to involve myself in this to a greater degree of involvement, if you are planning taking this further.

  4. Anonymous said...

    Also, just an fyi. Here is an interview of Bruce Alberts (outgoing president of the US National academy of sciences) in Science magazine.....he also comes up with many interesting points.

  5. Anonymous said...

    I believe the price tag of 1 lakh per annum is a reasonable amount. I am assuming the quality of education will be at par with what I received in my undergrad (UDCT, Mumbai).

    Also, the answer to shashwat's question about guaranteeing job. I graduated from Georgia Tech, a top-5 university for Engineering. Even GT does not guarantee a job to its graduates. Secodly, the view expressed by PZ Myers is the one that I and I guess Abi also holds:

    "As one of the science professors here, all I care about is that you come out of this university as scientifically literate, productive, and happy citizens who are equipped with well-prepared minds.

    Keep that in mind. Our goal isn't to get you a specific job when you graduate, although that's often a happy side effect. We're in the business of culturing well-rounded, flexible brains."


    My view on IITian's concern about brand dilution is quite similar to yours. More IITs does not mean brand dilution. One place where I disagree(?) with you is that rather than converting RECs into IIT's, why not build new IITs?
    Although thats a very constrained view... I would rather that new RUs be built, with Tech departments at par with those of IITs, instead of building new IITs.

  6. Anonymous said...

    There are two ways of looking at this: one lakh per year is pretty reasonable considering the high quality of education you suggest. But from the affordability perspective for a majority of students in this country it is humongously expensive. That is more than the annual income of the vast majority in this country. Then again if the institute has a reputation, then banks will fall over themselves to give a loan.

    For all the worth of the IIT brand, we need a new set of educational institutes for engineering in this country. The IIT's are not any more industry-oriented than the smaller colleges. The premier research institutes in this country have not benefitted much from the IIT-ians either. Most of highly successful IIT-ians in the US would have a US Masters degree anyway. Instead of trying to rectify the IIT's it would be easier to start a new set of colleges - or more easily still a new accreditation body (like AICTE) that rates colleges on criteria like research and creativity.

  7. Anonymous said...

    Rs. One lac a year is equal to about $2000. That's nothing at all by international standards but heck of a lot by Indian standards. In India the real primary education is a min of 10+2+3 because without those 15 years of edu because without that it is very difficult to find a job in the organised sector. What may happen is that these colleges -IF WELL RUN- will attract the best students (half the paying sort and the rest 'merit') who will in turn end up crowding out the less lucky ones who come out of our H/S affiliation system. Some years ago in Madras I came across several good finance companies that would simply choose the bright ones out of Loyola College (my college!). An equally important task is to permit good money into the educational system. That will make it much healthier. At present the 'private sector' in the educational business operates with a free rein with almost zeor oversight on quality of education. There is no harm in allowing the Indian coporate sector into the educational business thru indirectly by the setting up of endowments. Much of the US higher educational has emerged from the efforts of corporate sector - now what's the name of that famous university in Pittsburgh?

  8. Anonymous said...

    It may not be easy to implement a business model for higher education that is sustained purely on income from tuition and other fees paid by students. That would make education unaffordable to most students.

    Research on the economics of higher education seems to indicate that educational institutions and for-profit firms are fundamentally different in their economic characteristics.
    My blog post at
    summarises the reasearch and describes how and why educational institutions are different from for-profit firms.

  9. Anonymous said...

    One lakh a year? I'd be willing to pay it for a reasonable college. Of course, like any reasonable customer, I'd want to be sure of what I was getting for my money: there had better be permanent faculty of a certain quality, facilities, all that.

    Actually, I'd be willing to pay any amount for my kids' univ education, to the limit my wallet can pinch itself. I don't think higher education should be cheap, though I'd like to see easy loans to pay for it widely available. What I think should be cheap and widespread is primary education, but that's a topic for another day.

    I share SUnil Laxman's concern for how such a university would be set up: especially, how will it find reasonable faculty? There's a positive mushrooming of degree-granting colleges, in my estimation especially the MBA types. And I know from a few students I've met from these places that they have problems with faculty. More colleges is a good thing. But where are the professors?

    Another aspect of this is what happened to Rai University recently: as far as I can tell, some degree accreditation agreement fell through, leaving hundreds of students halfway through their degree course and faced suddenly with the prospect of having nothing to show for it. What's the safeguard against this?

  10. Anonymous said...
    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
  11. Anonymous said...

    I only want to comment on Dilip's comment about not funding higher education.

    Nothing can be more dangerous to the economic future of our country.

    India is today acknowledged as an emerging economic power, led by her strengths in 'high-technology' areas. How did we, a 'poor' country, manage to get such strengths? Simple - it was because of the innate Indian respect for higher education, and the opportunity provided by successive governments by keeping costs low. If we have the world's second (or third) largest pool of talented man-power, it is mainly because of our 'cheap' higher education. Imagine, would Kalam have completed his bachelor's if he had to pay the equivalent of 25,000 US$ for a year? Would Amartya Sen have gone to Presidency college if he had to pay 20 lakhs for a degree?

    Not to forget the point about equal opportunity. Dilip loves equal opportunity, how can he forget about equal opportunity in higher education? Why should higher education be the preserve of the rich (which will be the result if the government withdraws from higher education)? How is it OK that Dilip, Amartya Sen, and Arundhati Roy (all advocates of un-subsidised higher education) get affordable higher education, but not others? Also, what about women? How many parents would be willing to take a loan to put their daughters through college? I know middle-class parents would, but what about others? Aren't we closing the door of opportunity on women?

    Primary education is extremely important, yes. But so is higher education. It is higher education that will give students the skills to survive in tomorrow's world - where jobs will be based on creativity and high technology, not on mass-manufacturing. It is research funding that leads to technological innovations and breakthroughs, not mass-manufacturing.

    Finally, the background to the Dilip's argument. The scarcity mentality. "Oh! we are a poor country, and we have too many people. So, we can't afford higher education, we can't afford nuclear power,...". I am no economist, but I am sure that a fraction of the money the government spends on itself or a fraction of the black money in India will suffice to finance higher education for our masses.