Saturday, February 03, 2007

Real Universities, Please?

An edited version of the following (with the disclaimer that "views expressed are personal") appeared as an op-ed -- my first! -- in this week's Tehelka, whose editors exercised their right to publish it under a different title. The e-paper version with some fancy graphic art is here.

The purpose behind posting the article here is mainly to provide the links, without which some sentences sound weird. Your comments will be greatly appreciated.

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Real Universities, Please?

In 2005, the UPA government announced the formation of Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER) at Kolkata, Pune and Chandigarh; the first two started their operations last July. In September 2006, it announced that five engineering colleges would be 'upgraded' to Indian Institutes of Engineering Science and Technology. Just last month, it also 'awarded' new Indian Institutes of Technology to the states of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan.

All this news should make us happy and proud that our government is finally getting its act together on our higher education, right? Wrong! Absolutely, horribly wrong!

Creation of these new institutions is premised on an over-reliance on Indian Institutes -- a phenomenon which is best abbreviated to IIO. As a strategy for positive change IIO is flawed, inefficient, and expensive. From the point of view of nation building, IIO represents an utter bankruptcy of imagination.

The flaws in IIO stem from its smug assumption that, somehow, small institutions training a few thousand students in niche areas are enough to feed the country's immense appetite for skilled manpower. This smugness also makes it callously indifferent to the hunger for knowledge and skills among our millions of students who languish in our universities and colleges.

From an operational viewpoint, IIO has historically been an inefficient strategy. In any academic institution, certain facilities are common: library, lecture halls, laboratories, sports facilities, amphitheatres, and computing and internet infrastructure. The bigger the institution -- the larger the student and faculty population that uses this common infrastructure -- the lower the effective cost per user. With its emphasis on small institutions, IIO has bred inefficiency. A similar argument applies to the student-to-teacher ratio. Currently, IITs operate at about seven students per teacher (going by the 2003 figures from the Rama Rao Committee report). As M.A. Pai points out, this ratio is three times as high in "most US public universities." Clearly, a poor country like ours has every right to expect -- in fact, demand -- that our institutions perform at the highest levels of efficiency. Engineers and managers from our IITs and IIMs would demand no less in the products and services they design, develop or manage!

More important than its inefficiency and narrow vision is the enormous cost of IIO. Just ask yourself this question: if our government is so proud of its IIO strategy, why doesn't it convert all our universities and colleges into Indian Institutes of This and That? Let us do some quick math.

The three new IITs, for example, are estimated to cost Rs. 1400 crores per year for the next five years! When fully operational, they will have a student strength of about 14,000 (8000 bachelors, 2000 masters and 4000 doctoral students -- all of which are generous estimates), giving us a price of Rs. 50 lakhs per student. Amortizing this sum over a 20-year period gives us Rs. 2.5 lakhs per student per year. That is just fixed costs alone! Add to it about Rs. 1.5 lakhs per student as annual running expenses, taking the total to over Rs. 4 lakhs per student per year!

To put this number in perspective, if our government were to lavish even a quarter of this amount on every student, it would end up spending Rs. 100,000 crores -- roughly 3 percent of GDP. Put another way, this is eight times India's current expenditure on higher education (0.37 percent of GDP)! Is it any wonder, then, that "IITs for all" is not the favourite slogan for our higher education planners?

Ultimately, IIO blinkers us into an utterly unimaginative -- and some would say, delusional -- worldview which devalues academic disciplines that are not worthy of an Indian Institute. Isn't it absurd to even assume that anything other than technology, science, and management (and, if I may add, Hotel Management!) is unimportant for our country? Don't we need great economists to steer us through turbulence of globalization? Psychologists to help us deal with stresses from a fast-paced life? Artists to make our lives richer and more enjoyable? And philosophers to make sense of our uniquely human condition and our (almost) impending immortality?

We must demand that our next generation be exposed to the big, bold and beautiful ideas from all disciplines. This demand is not just pseudo-idealistic rhetoric; it is firmly rooted in reality. Consider: while mature fields have a clearly articulated set of unsolved problems (though the solution paths are yet to be discovered!), it's the disciplinary interstices that often offer scope for asking probing questions and for making exciting discoveries. Take, for example, nanotechnology -- arguably the most happening field in the sciences. It straddles physics, chemistry, biology, and electronics. I can cite neurophysics and biochemistry as other examples of such mixed fields in natural sciences. In the social sciences too, scorching hot fields such as behavioural economics and psycholinquistics straddle multiple disciplines. Do we have examples of hot fields that span natural and social sciences? We sure do: econophysics, sociobiology and social networks.

All these inter/cross-disciplinary fields hold great promise -- both in the short term and in the long term. We must empower our youth to benefit from -- contribute to -- the fantastic new developments in these areas. We must dump IIO, and actively seek better alternatives.

One alternative is readily suggested by IIO's flaws we have discussed so far. This alternative is an institution whose academic footprint spans humanities and arts, natural and social sciences, and professions such as law, management, medicine and engineering. In other words, a Real University!

I can hear you groan, "you mean, like, a Delhi University?". Don't panic, I'm not recommending that we let a 100 DUs bloom. Serious problems plague our universities, and many of them can be traced back to the hub-and-spoke structure with a a centralized university and its affiliated colleges. This structure has effectively isolated practicing researchers from teaching bachelors students. Granted, we inherited this structure from the British; but our former colonial masters dumped it a long time ago in favour of Real Universities!

A Real University combines the great features of IITs (functional autonomy, generous funding, co-habitation of research and undergraduate teaching) and our universities (multiple disciplines), and improves upon the result. It will solve the problems of intellectual, disciplinary and physical fragmentation: active researchers will teach bachelors, masters and doctoral students, programmes in a variety of disciplines will be on offer, and economies of scale will operate in every way possible -- large campuses with tens of thousands of students.

So, how do we create Real Universities? One option is to build them from the ground up. The National Knowledge Commission has recommended precisely such a course of action: creating what it calls National Universities -- some fifty of them over the next several years. This recommendation deserves our whole-hearted support.

But we do not have to stop with creating RUs from scratch. We can also encourage other institutions -- by providing the right incentives -- to convert themselves into RUs. For example, our universities can offer bachelors programmes. Similarly, IITs can expand into social sciences and humanities. The elite research institutions (IISc, TIFR,...) can expand into bachelors programmes as well as into social sciences and humanities. And finally, some of our more accomplished colleges can become RUs by adding research to their portfolio of activities.

Do all our institutions have to be RUs? Of course not. Just as the developed countries have their community and vocational colleges, liberal arts colleges, and research universities, we must also aim for a diversity of institutions, each with its own unique set of advantages. For example, our colleges have done a good job of keeping the costs down largely by having full time teachers. Not only can they be a low cost alternative to RUs, they can also force the latter to keep their costs in check.

With greenfield and brownfield initiatives, we can easily bring -- within the next five years or so -- at least one million students (10 percent) under a modern system of Real Universities. If our state governments also allow the universities under their control to be converted into Real Universities, this number can easily be three or four times larger. Now, that is an achievement that we can all be proud of.


  1. Tabula Rasa said...

    great article. having just come out of a three hour committee meeting on the "mission of undergraduate education", i can only agree with your sentiments.

  2. Anonymous said...

    Pretty neat article Abi. I just wish the govt. listens to what Academicians around the country has to say on this topic.

  3. barbarindian said...

    Congratulations on your first Op/Ed. My thoughts are summarized on my blog.

    A few additional thoughts:

    1. The knowledge commission is in fact considering universities as you mention towards the end of the post. So the comment about everything being horribly wrong is perhaps a bit too extreme.

    2. You do not mention whether you support keeping the IITs around. I believe under the present system we do. But their intake by capacity expansion must accommodate the same percentage of students from those exposed to decent plus two education. Since the pool of students with decent plus two education is increasing, there is no reason to deny perfectly deserving students for lack of seats. Of course ideally every student must have access to education but I limit my opinion to this discussion.

    3. The idea of IITs or other institutes suddenly expanding into unrelated fields may be impractical. There may be strictly organizational design level constraints. Culture and administrative context can not be built in five years.

    4. Perhaps you are not aware, a lot of lower Government positions have no takers. There is a severe supply side constraint in our education system. Similarly, the creation of so many humanities oriented seats in a short time may not be advisable. After all the demand is dictated by the promise of a career. I would think that increasing investment in primary and secondary education would perhaps be more appropriate.

    5. The question of education can not really be decoupled from other policies such as the SEZs. Tax SOPs are being indefinitely extended to IT/BPO sectors. SEZs are creating serious competitiveness issues. Under the circumstances it is no surprise that almost every student wants to pursue a course in these directions. Only a wholesome economy can support a wholesome education system. Hopefully the retail boom (unbless it is derailed before it truly begins) will provide the incentive because retail requires a much broader skillset and some of those humanities or crosss-discipline studies you talk about will become more relevant.

  4. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    abi - nice article. But when you say

    I can hear you groan, "you mean, like, a Delhi University?".

    -- well, actually Delhi University is pretty good compared to a lot of other universities, especially in the south. And what about JNU? That would be a better model for the sort of universities you have in mind, I think.

  5. kuffir said...


    congratualtions.. hope you write more regularly for the msm in the future..


    please don't generalize when you talk about the south..
    as for's a worse mistake than the iits in my view..

  6. pradeepkumar pi said...

    Abi, very good post. Prof. Yashpal will be very happy to see many people are coming up to support his views.

    Barbar Indian, You ask why Abi silent on privataisation of higher education. Abi is probably well aware of the background of people who run " The Best Private UNiversity in INdia" - A man who is in the Interpoles most wanted list.

    Details are here

    Another man who is setting up a Private University (Indian Harvard according to him) has got blood in his hand.

  7. Anonymous said...

    Pradeepkumar, very well said. We have seen the private educational institutes in our country. For them, making money is more important than imparting education. IIPM is a perfect example for what private sector can offer (not to talk about hundreds of money making machines called private engineering colleges).

  8. Anonymous said...

    Rahul, Hyderabad Central University, Anna University, Madurai Kamaraj University, etc. are definitely better than or on par with JNU, DU, etc. In fact, the School of Biological Sciences in Madurai Kamaraj university is renowned for it Biology program. From the late 70s to early 90s, they had some really great scientists. Do not underestimate the universities from south.

  9. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    kuffir, krish -- ok, point accepted. I had in mind the undergraduate college system in Madras and Bangalore (and indeed, most other cities), which are truly dreadful, at least for the sciences. But yes, Hyderabad's Central University and Osmania University, some departments of Anna U, MKU, etc are indeed quite good even today (I'm not talking about late 70s to early 80s, at that time there were many more excellent universities). But even these places are much better at the university department level than at the undergraduate college level. Abi points out the problems with this model of education. That's why I think JNU is a better model, since it does away with the college system.

    Speaking as someone who has often interviewed or otherwise interacted with undergraduates from universities seeking admission to graduate/PhD programmes in the sciences, I can say that the best undergraduates by far come from Calcutta and Delhi, and sometimes from Bombay and Pune. There are very few, especially in the physical sciences, from Madras/AnnaU or Bangalore or other southern universities (including "autonomous" colleges), and they tend to make it despite the system, not because of it. In biological sciences, yes, AnnaU and MKU produce some good students, but those programmes are outside the college system, I believe.

  10. Anonymous said...


    Congratulations for your excellent article! It is true that govt. resources are not allocated properly where they are needed most.

    For example, 3 new IITs will come up at a colossal cost of Rs. 2,500 crores each (and may go up to Rs. 3,000-4,000 crores by implementation). Compared to this, govt. gave one-time grant of only Rs. 100 crores each to century-old Universities of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, which educate hundreds of thousands students per year! Even the soon-to be established, AIIMS type Indian Institutes of Public Health will receive only Rs. 140 crores as one-time funding.


    Yogesh Upadhyaya
    New Jersey

  11. Anonymous said...

    I do agree with you regarding undergraduate education. Sorry about the misunderstanding.

  12. Anonymous said...

    Very good article. However, DU is one of the much better universities. If this was not a model, we have to look abroad for models..

    I did my BSc from Madras university and went to Delhi University for masters . The standard of DU is definitely much higher in terms of what they expect you to learn by yourself. The quality of teachers is perhaps not better. So one has to put in much more effort. Madras University teaches at low levels and the exams are at lower than ever level. With minimum effort everyone can get through. Some of the individual colleges sometimes go above the prescribed level and actually do quality research as well. These are exceptions.

  13. Abi said...

    Thank you all for your comments.

    TR: I am glad that you agree with what I have written. It means a lot to me.

    Krish: We all know that there are multiple points of view about our higher ed system. I have tried to make as strong a case as possible for the kind of system we should move towards. I would certainly like to see alternative visions from others (including academics).

    Rahul: I hope the north-vs-south issue has been sorted out by now between Kuffir, Krish and you ;-)

    I have nothing against DU; as you say, it may very well be one of the better universities. I have used DU only as a representative of the hub-and-spoke system, that has made our system sub-mediocre. The present system survives only because other alternatives are not allowed to come up.

    No, JNU is not what I have in mind -- it is a predominantly post-graduate institution. What I am arguing for is a research university with a strong undergraduate teaching.

    As one goes below the 99th or 98th percentile of (an already small) student body, what the current system offers is a bleak set of choices. A strategy like IIO does not address this important problem. Which is why I'm arguing for setting up a large number of Real Universities, with which it should be possible to expand the pool of well trained undergraduates.

    Yogesh: I agree with you. There must be something in our government that devalues existing institutions, and suckers it into creating gleaming new white elephants. What is that something?

    Pradeep: Thanks for those pointers. You are right about how our private colleges have not covered themselves with glory. But, we must remain open to private participation in higher education; our government is not going to be able to spend the kind of money needed for a world class higher ed system. The key question is: how do we get the right kind of people to invest in higher ed?

    Barbarindian: IITs were created in a different era. They cater to, at best, tens of thousands of students. By sticking to this tired old model, we are consigning a vast number -- literally, millions -- to a sub-mediocre system of affiliated colleges. This is a crime; I have argued for a way out: Real Universities.

    You are talking about BPOs and IT companies. I am talking about preparing undergraduate students well enough to enable them to contribute to knowledge creation. It may be true that our students flock to engineering and other subjects because of job opportunities; the RUs are not going to hurt them in any way. In addition to professional courses, RUs will also train a large number of students in many other vital fields in a wholesome environment.

    I hope I have convinced you that I have nothing against private investment in higher education (see my response to Pradeep). Let us hope that this investment will be qualitatively much better than what we have at present.

  14. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    abi - I had the mistaken impression that JNU had an undergraduate programme in most social science subjects, but it turns out to be only in languages. Nevertheless, "JNU-with-undergraduates" seems not a bad model. In other words, a university without colleges. Pretty much what you are saying.

  15. Sunil said...

    I enjoyed reading this article, Abi. It put together a lot of your ideas (dispersed in numerous posts) together. I agree with most of them. A few years ago, I might have asked why? As an undergrad (where I was exposed to a surprisingly broad curriculum), I often asked why I needed to know all this, since I was interested in something specific. But, after my years as a grad student in the US, my perspective changed substantially. I also fondly remember opportunities I had (even as a grad student) to take classes outside my department!

  16. Unknown said...

    I enjoyed reading the Tehelka article. As a PhD student in economics, I am particularly enthusiastic about the developments at the intersection of disciplines - psychology and economics, for example - and the current organization of highly specialized universities does not serve the advancement of our science effectively.