How badly Indian higher education needs a turnaround becomes apparent from the fact that even the best Indian higher education institutions (HEIs) don’t get top billing in international rankings. No Indian HEI figures in the top 200 globally in the latest Times Higher Education (THE) rankings. Bear in mind, THE considers not just the conventional parameters like teaching and research excellence/repute, but even ones such as knowledge transfer, which measures participation in exchange programmes and collaboration with other international universities, and impact, measuring progress against the UN’s SDGs. Such rankings also highlight improvement in higher education ecosystems across nations— for example, the latest rankings show the exponential growth of Chinese universities as more of them are visible among the top 100. In contrast, India ended up with only three institutions (Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, IIT-Ropar, and JSS Academy of Higher Education and Research, Mysore) in the 300–400 band.
Top institutions like IIT-Bombay and Delhi refused to participate citing inefficient ranking measures. Critics do talk of issues like the focus on citations meaning the scales are tipped towards research in English, but that can hardly be a consideration for an institute wishing to be globally competitive. The weightage to research also means institutes that have lower undergraduate enrolment get a fillip. But, everything considered, India needs to do a lot more to get ahead in the race to become an academic superpower. It is shocking that India’s Institutes of Eminence should either shy away from competing with the global best or compete and be left far behind. While the National Education Policy 2020 has been hailed as a “game-changer”, the issue lies with what translates to outcomes on the ground. Though education is a concurrent subject, the Centre, of course, is more answerable than the states when it comes to India’s showing in global higher education rankings.
Data from the ministry of education shows the number of institutions of national importance has risen from 75 in 2015 to 135 in 2019–2020 and the number of PhD candidates has increased by 60% since 2015. The real tale is however told by the budget allocation in the central budget depicts the issue at hand— the higher education budget this year has taken a cut of Rs 1,000 crore, making the overall allocation the lowest in three years. No wonder then, government HEIs, old or new, are either short of funds or are mulling over market solutions that may not always deliver the best results.
The change in focus, as evident from the Rs 50,000 crore allocation (over five years) to the National Research Foundation, inspires hope, but action must meet intent on such announcements.
The NEP also places emphasis on provisions supporting the growth of research in the country, including the establishment of research-based universities and modifications to the existing higher education structure which will lead to research becoming an integral component of a university. To get this right, the government must do what a China has been doing over the past couple of decades: focus on incentivising research, especially that which gets global recognition through publication in reputed journals, intensify efforts to create a clutch of universities that compete with the world’s best, and truly free up HEIs—administrative, financial and academic freedom will mean not dictating to an IIT or an IIM on fee caps, reservation, etc.