Building World Class Universities in India

Guest Author’s Profile:- 

Prof Pankaj Jalote is the Director of Indraprastha Institute
of Information Technology (IIIT) Delhi. Prior to this, he was the Microsoft
Chair Professor at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at IIT
Delhi and he has also headed the Department of Computer Science and Engineering
at IIT Kanpur.

Earlier he was an Assistant Professor in the Department of
Computer Science at the University of Maryland, where he also held joint
appointment in the Institute of Advanced Computer Studies. An IIT Kanpur
graduate he holds a PhD from University of Illinois. He has authored many

He is on the Board of Advisors of many software companies in
India and USA, is a Technical Advisory Board member for Microsoft Research,
India, has served on the Editorial Board of IEEE Transactions on Software
Engineering, and International Journal of Emperical Software Engineering. He is
a Fellow of the IEEE. 


I recently attended the 5th Global University Summit, in
which senior leaders from universities from many countries participated and
shared views. It was indeed a unique opportunity to meet and listen to leaders
of some of the best universities of the world. 
While it was great to hear the views of these top leaders, and there are
always things that one learns and approaches that can be translated to Indian
context, it became clear to me that the pressing issues for these universities
are simply very different from those faced in India.

At a fundamental level, these universities assume that high
quality faculty talent is available, and high quality infrastructure exists.
Some of the current focus areas for them are how to support higher education in
times of reducing government support (almost in all developed countries the
support from government for higher education is reducing with governments
pushing them to become mostly self sustaining), improving diversity as they
believe that in a globalized world diversity will help in their pursuit of
excellence, attracting the best students, evolving strategies for making an
impact, etc.

One could not help but see the stark difference from the
scenario in India. Even in the top Institutes, getting decent faculty is
perhaps the predominant issue being faced. And decent infrastructure remains a
major concern – there is just too little money being put in for building
educational infrastructure, as we still seem to believe that higher education
needs just modest funding – an investment of Rs 200-500 crores for setting a
university is viewed as extremely “generous”, when this amount is typically
used to construct a high quality building for one department (the CS building
of UIUC, Georgia Tech, MIT, Stanford – which have come up in the last 10 years,
have cost in the vicinity of $100 million). So what is assumed by Universities
in the developed world, are the pressing issues in India.

It also became clear that building a world class University,
at least by the measures that are used to define such universities, will be a
challenge, if not an impossibility, for the next few decades in India. The
reason is simple. Research performance drives the global standing of a
University, and the two main factors that impact research productivity and
quality are faculty and PhD students/postdocs. The well established
universities pursue talent at a global level, and are able to get them, given
their facilities and good compensation. So they attract the best talent to join
as faculty, and they get the best available students in their PhD programs.

The situation in India on these fronts is extremely
challenging. Forget about global talent, Indian Institutions are not in a
position to attract even the best Indian talent – both the best faculty and the
best PhD students from India prefer working overseas. Even the best Indian
institution has available to it only those faculty who chose to return to India
(or stay in India), and those PhD students who were unable to get fellowships
abroad (or did not wish to go abroad).

It should, however be noted, that at the undergraduate level, we are
able to attract the best Indian talent, as generally the best students prefer
to study in top Institutions in India and only those who cannot make it to them
go abroad (if they can afford it.) Unfortunately, top class UGs, while they
help build the brand of an Institution in teaching, do not help much in
building the research capability of a University.

So, it seems evident to me that in pursuit of excellence,
our focus in the foreseeable future should be on doing whatever it takes to
attract the best Indian faculty to work in India,  attract top Indian students to do PhD in
India (which can be facilitated by good faculty), and leverage the high quality
UGs to the extent possible.  And if we
are able to achieve this, then in due course excellence will come and ratings
will follow.  (For attracting best Indian
faculty and PhD students to work in India it is necessary to properly
understand from them, what is it that they need to work in India,  and build policies based on this. 

I have done one informal survey of Indian PhD
students in US on what they need to return to India – results of this survey
are available here, and one of UG students in three IITs regarding why they
dont do PhD in India and what they need to do a PhD in India – results of this
survey are available here.  Inputs from
both of these were used to build policies for faculty recruitment and PhD
student recruitment at IIIT Delhi.)

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