The government’s newly-constituted National Knowledge Commission (NKC) noted in its first report (2006) that there was a “quiet crisis in higher education in India which runs deep.” The Commission called for, among other things, setting up 50 National Universities to “provide education of the highest standard,” building more than 1,000 new universities, developing strong linkages between teaching and research, changes in the regulatory structure in higher education, and increases in public spending on higher education.
In a nutshell, two broad sets of challenges in India’s higher education sector have been widely recognized for at least a decade. The first is the urgent need to build thousands of new institutions. Such an expansion has become necessary because of the country’s demographic profile. Approximately half of India’s 1.2 billion people are under 25 years of age. More than five million Indians enter the 15-to-24 age group every year. There are simply not enough colleges and universities to accommodate them.
The second challenge is to upgrade the quality of higher education. As I discussed in a previous editorial, only a few of India’s higher education institutions count as centers of excellence or enjoy world-class status.
On its part, the government appears keen to improve the quality of higher education. Addressing a recent meeting of the vice-chancellors of central universities, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh noted that “in recognition of the fact that expansion without quality improvement serves little purpose, we will now give overriding emphasis on quality.”
Expansion of the higher education sector
As part of its ambitious plans for both expansion and improvement in the quality of higher education, the government has more than doubled the number of Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIM), while new central universities are coming up in each state as well as several research centers and institutes.
There seems, however, a lack of clarity behind setting up new institutions. While it is evident that thousands of new institutions are required to increase access to higher education, since so few Indian institutions are world renowned, there is an urgent need to pay attention to developing select older and newer institutions in a manner that they can begin to count as centers of excellence at the international level or even break into world rankings. The government’s actions, however, suggest some kind of compromise between improving access to higher education and developing world-class institutions, which may come about at the expense of the latter.
Take the issue of the location of new higher education institutions. Several new IITs, IIMs, and central universities have come up in locations at some distance from large urban centers.
In theory, there is nothing wrong with building new institutions away from over-crowded cities where a large amount of land is hard to find and is prohibitively expensive. Higher education institutions in less developed areas can also become the drivers of local development. However, once India’s infrastructure deficit is taken into account, even a hundred miles away from large urban centers becomes significant. As Barry Naughton has pointed out, unlike China which has consistently built infrastructure ahead of demand, India builds infrastructure when bottlenecks develop and far too slowly.
Some higher education experts such as Philip Altbach have questioned the wisdom of locating potential “world-class” institutions at remote locations or even in second-tier ‘provincial’ cities. Altbach argues, based on extensive research on higher education institutions around the world (including a co-edited study with Jamil Salmi, The Road to Academic Excellence), that while a lot of ingredients go into the making of a successful university, including resources, autonomy, leadership and good governance, luck, and persistence, it is the quality of faculty which is crucial.
Altbach feels that it is “difficult to lure academics and students to out-of-the-way places” and for that reason, he has been critical of plans to build the highly-publicized Nalanda University at Rajgir in Bihar.
The rebirth of an ancient Buddhist institution
The ancient Nalanda University was a Buddhist institution of international repute which flourished from the fifth to the twelfth century CE. It attracted students from China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Thailand, Turkey and elsewhere to study in a wide range of disciplines such as religion, history, law, linguistics, mathematics, medicine, public health, architecture, sculpture, and astronomy.
The new Nalanda University was first proposed at the Second East Asia Summit in 2007 to bolster regional educational cooperation. In 2010, the Indian government approved it through an act of parliament. According to Nalanda’s Chancellor Amartya Sen, the university will begin admitting students in two schools from 2014.
Altbach has posed tough questions for Nalanda University:
“Are top students and faculty going to be attracted to rural Bihar? Perhaps, unfortunately, this option is not likely. The best minds want to be in the center of intellectual, cultural, and political life. They want to be able to easily mingle with peers and value easy travel connections… They value amenities, not only good libraries and laboratories, but also art museums and even an array of attractive restaurants and coffeehouses.”
If Altbach is right, Nalanda University will lack what it needs most to become more than a middling Indian university – the best faculty. However, there are reasons to be mildly optimistic about Nalanda University’s future even though it is quite clear that it faces enormous challenges ahead.
Optimism about Nalanda University
First, the university has the full backing of Bihar’s Chief Minister Nitish Kumar who is widely considered an able administrator and is credited with Bihar’s economic turnaround over the past decade. The challenge for Mr. Kumar (and the Indian government) will be to make Rajgir – which is about 100 kilometers from Patna, the state capital – easily accessible by road, train, and air. However, that may not be enough to attract the best faculty. Despite double-digit rates of economic growth in recent years, Bihar is still one on India’s poorest states. It also does not enjoy a favourable reputation in the country. For at least three decades or more, young women and men have left Bihar for higher education to Delhi and elsewhere and most have not returned. Some of the most prominent Bihari academics and intellectuals do not live in the state. Reversing this brain-drain will not be easy. Indians from other states may be even less enthused about working in Bihar.
Bihar’s many economic and social problems and challenges, according to Mr. Sen, makes it even more necessary to build Nalanda University to offer educational opportunities in “useful arts” (information technology, environmental studies, and management). Just as the ancient Nalanda was a source of economic sustenance and livelihood to the contiguous region, the new Nalanda is expected to forge economic linkages with the immediate neighbourhood.
Second, the new Nalanda University represents a pan-Asian initiative so that a fairly large number of countries including China, Japan, and Singapore are invested in its success. In an email communication with Asian Scientist Magazine, Mr. N. K. Singh, a member of Nalanda National Monitoring Committee (NMC) and the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of the Indian parliament), noted that while “the commitment of the Government of India to fully financing the University provides a measure of financial assurance,” an International Committee headed by Singapore’s former foreign minister, Mr. George Yeo, and an Endowment Committee headed by him would further “harness all possible means of innovative financing and global partnerships to make the University a self sustaining institution.” Already, Mr. Yeo, whom the Indian government honoured with a Padma Bhushan in 2012, has announced that Singapore will design, build and donate a state-of-the-art library at the cost of US$5-7 million to Nalanda University.
There is clearly a regional and international dynamic to the enterprise which may provide the necessary push for Nalanda University to succeed. According to Mr. Singh, “if the present century is an Asian century, Nalanda can foster an intellectual leadership as a symbol of new Asian Renaissance.”
Third, a very high-profile Nalanda National Monitoring Committee (NMC) – which includes Chancellor Amartya Sen, the powerful Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, and others – is fully committed to realizing the goal of building a “world-class” university. However, in a country where political and bureaucratic roadblocks routinely frustrate good intentions, uncertainties will remain. It will require extended commitment and cooperation between the government of Bihar, at least two ministries of the government of India – external affairs and human resource development (which is responsible for education) – and several Asian governments to make Nalanda University a success.
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