By Qamar Ali Jafri, Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow.

Everyone dreams of studying in a premiere world institute. No country ever feels that it can do without a world-class university. Now, in the age of academic hype, who decides what is ‘world-class’ or  ‘premiere’ or ‘flagship’ or for that matter, who decides upon the ‘institutions of eminence (IOE)’? The phrase ‘institutions of eminence’ caught the limelight in a recent policy decision made by the Indian government. UGC rolled out a scheme for providing regulatory structure to enable 20 Indian Institutions to become world class teaching and research institutes. For the same, the government constituted an empowered expert committee (EEC) under the leadership of N. Gopalaswami with an aim to give these institutes the IOE tag, and further project them on the global platform. However, the creation of this special IOE category is a passive admission on the part of the government that the Indian universities have failed to establish a place among the top-ranked institutions in the world.

Before going into the need and importance of the Scheme with respect to the Indian paradigm, let us ponder a bit upon the tag of Institutions of Eminence (IOE). Is the definition of IOE synonymous with the ‘Western elite’ and therefore inherently biased against their eastern counterpart? Are only research institutes fit for this category, or can other types of tertiary education institutions also aspire to be the best of their kind on the global platform. However, the paradox is, that the concept of world-class institutions has been widely applied without any clear, explicit definition. Professor Philip G. Altbach, accurately and succinctly argues that, “everyone wants one, no one knows what it is, and no one knows how to get one.”  He is also of the opinion that the ranking game of the universities should be done away with altogether. The rationale behind doing away with the ranking system, is relevant to the regional and specialist universities and colleges, and their governments. Such institutions cater to the demographic need of the country, along with its societal and economic requirements. From the perspective of contemporary international relations, the advancements in technology and education are desirable factors, in furtherance of which the soft power of a nation is enhanced. This helps a nation to gather respect and admiration in the global arena. Great universities are the backbone of great nations, the best examples being, the Ivy League of the US and the Russell Group in Britain. A few Chinese Universities have also made it to the top in various such lists. India, as an emerging world power, is under pressure, owing to the fact that it has zero representation in the top 200 universities of the world. Critics of the IOE Scheme need to understand that as a growing world power, India needs to develop an international appeal in the sphere of higher education. If we are able to successfully implement this scheme, we will be able to attract brainpower to our country, subsequently leading to better economic growth and accumulation of more hard power.

For the sake of discussion, let us consider the following: how would the Indian cricket team perform if it was governed by all the rules that burden an average university? What would happen if the team strategy and tactics were decided by the government, rather than by the coach? Wouldn’t such an approach be a huge risk, whereby it would feel like we are relegating the Indian cricket team to the sidelines of mediocrity? Moreover, if we agree that such an approach is unhealthy for a sports team, why do we allow our universities to operate under similar conditions?

This article attempts to define what a world-class institution is and argues in favor of its regional and national character, rather than simply emulating the elitist universities. The dictionary meaning of world-class is, “ranking among the foremost; of an international standard of excellence.” Fair enough, but a lot of subjectivity still prevails and generally, many institutions declare themselves world-class without any substantive justification. The reason behind this, is  the age of academic hype, which has come to the fore owing to economic lucrativeness of various prospects associated with education– because of which the institutions are more ranking oriented, rather than being goal oriented.

Although an exhaustive definition of ‘world-class’ is not possible, at least some parameters necessary for a world-class status can be listed out:

(i) Excellence in research underpins the theme of world-class: research that pushes back the boundaries of knowledge known to man. This does not mean that only research-based institutions (engineering, medical and other sciences) can make it to the top-notch bracket. However, the inclination of this trend is in favor of these institutions. This is where the selection of the 20 institutions, both private and public, becomes a calculative task for the empowered expert committee.

(ii) Academic freedom is indispensable to the premiere institutions of the world. Knowledge should be pursued freely, wherever it leads. In some countries, members of the academic community are allowed to express their opinions on social and political issues. The boundary between their professional expertise and the society, is permeable.

(iii) The next would be, top quality professors and a favorable working environment for them. The best professors are those who see their work as a calling and not as a mere job. To motivate them for the same, the perquisites provided to them should be far beyond satisfactory.

(iv) Abundant resources and support of the government make creating such institutions, a viable venture.

To summarize, concentration of talent, abundant resources and favorable governance are the main characteristics of a world-class university.

“In the sciences, being at the right university—the one where the most state-of-the-art research is being done in the best-equipped labs by the most visible scientists—is extremely important. George Stigler describes this as a snowballing process, where an outstanding scientist gets funded to do exciting research, attracts other faculty, then the best students—until a critical mass is formed that has an irresistible appeal to any young person entering the field.”

-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

However, speaking from a realist perspective, handpicking 20 odd institutions and eyeing them to ensure that they make it to the top 500 within the next ten years, might prove to be a herculean task. The demography of Indian students enrolled in a higher education programme is estimated to be 34.6 million, which is quite a large number to sustain, even if the IOC status is provided to 20 universities. The solution for this lies in the realm of objectivity. Even the best universities are not the best in every pursuit they undertake. For instance, Harvard does not rank at the top in engineering. Focussing on building world-class departments in these Universities, in synchronization with the national and regional economy, with special focus on the needs of the society, might turn out to be a fruitful venture.

As of now, the Scheme of Institutions of Eminence seems to be a necessary desperate measure taken up by the government of India. A quest, in the form of a debate, about world-class university standards, is the need of the hour. Following the footsteps of China and South Korea, where universities self-consciously try to transform themselves into world-class institutions, India too, is focusing attention on the academic standards and improvement of the higher education sector. The UGC (Declaration of Government Educational Institutions as Institutions of Eminence) Guidelines, 2017 set out a utopian aim. Striving for excellence is not a bad thing, and competition may spark improvement. Yet, a sense of realism must be a part of any such equation.

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