The University of Calcutta (founded in 1857) and Allahabad University (founded in 1887) once provided Nobel Prize winners and Prime Ministers. Now they rank below 400 in world rankings. India, in fact, does not have a single entry among the top 20 universities in Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (Brics).

Most Indian universities are rapidly degenerating into “municipality schools of higher education” while most private institutions charge high capitation fees to grant admission and degrees. De-emphasising thinking, creativity, research and innovation, this system encourages intellectual cowardice.
India’s university system has failed and the result of this malfeasance is generational drift. Just 19 per cent of engineering and five per cent of non-engineering graduates churned out every year are employable. With over 5,000 colleges affiliated to over 200 universities and the de facto patron-client relationships rampant in regulatory bodies, much is rotten in the nation-state of India.

India’s universities exist in a state of ambivalent ministry of human resources development (HRD) control. While the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) scheme of 2013 sought decentralisation, implementation has lagged significantly. Even now the University Grants Commission (UGC) oversees a few hundred universities and thousands of colleges, stifling openness and creativity. Higher education is seemingly more democratic in China.

University governance should be an academic’s domain, with complete autonomy and without loss of financial support. The HRD ministry and the UGC need to disassociate themselves from the selection of IIT/IIM directors and vice-chancellorships, focusing instead on policy design. But for this to happen, a radical and fundamental reorganisation of the entire university structure is necessary. We should have an upper bound on university size (including affiliated colleges), and better performance criteria for enforcing accountability.

Current criteria are enumerative, focusing on research paper quantity, patent numbers and league table rankings. Universities should be assessed by academic excellence, institutional capacity and socio-cultural performance. All knowledge products created by a university — syllabus, papers, faculty books, PhD research and student employability — should be assessed for intrinsic value and socio-economic relevance. Universities need to set up transparent and credible self-evaluation processes, as is the case with the national law schools and IIMs.

Post-Independence, India’s university system was bifurcated, with all teaching relegated to universities and all research to institutes. Undergraduate education remains a “lower level” of learning, while vocational education is ignored. With technical courses kept on the narrow and unidimensional route, this separation has come at an incalculable social and cultural cost. Young engineering graduates are provided with little holistic education, while medical colleges have evolved in splendid isolation. The trend of creating stand-alone universities in certain fields, while providing specialisation depth, has been trivialised — universities for catering and yoga now exist. Worse, universities have little say in designing academic programmes or professional disciplines.

Even our grading is fuzzy. There is widespread variance in evaluation criteria, from two to six divisions. So while Madurai Kamaraj University awards just two divisions at the master’s level (1st class and 2nd class), Gujarat and Osmania Universities use three divisions. Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University uses a five-division final award scheme, utilising three separate first class awards. This archaic examination system, ostensibly for certifying student ability, offers little confidence in the ability of a student.

The Indian university system perpetuates its own intellectual malnourishment, restricting senior university faculty from teaching at undergraduate college level and depriving them of a unique pedagogical experience. We should seek to enrich our undergraduate programmes by providing more opportunities to the best faculty, with college affiliations emphasised during lecturer appointments. While providing for specialisation, a holistic curriculum remains necessary and should be fostered by building strong epistemic bridges between different fields of professional education. Professional institutions should be returned to universities in an academic and administrative sense, with intermediary bodies that offer licenses abolished. Bringing vocational training under the purview of universities, by providing necessary accreditation to industrial training institutions and polytechnics, will address long neglected issues of social justice and inequity.

Teacher quality lags significantly. University involvement in teacher education is confined to the secondary level school as part of the BEd degree programme, while there’s none for teachers of preschool and primary-level. Appointments to key positions are rarely based on merit, while promotions are based on service length, with a common salary structure linked to civil servants — all decided by the Orwellian sounding Pay Commission. With the UGC’s overemphasis on academic qualification, university teachers register for sub-standard PhD research in their quest for promotions, thus ensuring that our academics exist in their own “babudom” — highly qualified and yet highly unproductive.

The quality of teacher education within higher education should be enhanced — academic staff colleges should be encouraged to develop full-fledged orientation programmes for newly recruited teachers. Meritocracy should be institutionalised, with clear links between academic productivity, salaries and tenure. Both the quantum of research funding and the policy framework for research grants needs to change significantly. We need better incentives for research and publications amongst faculty members, as the current system of faculty recruitment and appraisal is clearly failing to appropriately measure research contributions and quality.

World-class universities are not created overnight. They need credible faculty, with excellent administrators and support staff, while focusing on a delicate balance between research and education.

Consider Russia. Using “Project 5-100”, an initiative to support the best universities, it seeks to list five universities in the Global Top 100, while conducting deep restructuring using international models and practices.

India could consider empowering 50 of its top universities to seek global excellence, offering them a clear mandate, along with funding and resources. But this excellence cannot be guaranteed by signing a muster each day. It requires careful nurturing of quality teachers and lecturers. Students that can excel despite the system should not need to do so.