Opinion: Will greater autonomy bring 'quality' to India's top colleges?

Written By: Sanvit Shah
Maharashtra, India Published: Mar 07, 2018, 12:05 PM(IST)

None of the Indian university made it to the top 200 of the world university rankings 2017, published by Times Higher Education. Photograph:( Zee News Network )

In October 2017, Prime Minister Modi promised to fund of INR 10,000 crores and autonomy to 20 universities, enabling them to compete globally. The subtle reference was to the poor performance of Indian institutions in the global university rankings. None of the Indian university made it to the top 200 of the world university rankings 2017, published by Times Higher Education. And the 2018 list had no Indian representation in the top 250. 

While the ranking methodologies have their own flaws and biases, the message for India is loud and clear – India needs a serious rethink of its higher education policy. With the recently announced institutional reforms in the form of Graded Autonomy Regulations (GARs) and Autonomous College Regulations (ACRs), there is greater hope for India’s top universities to be globally competitive. The reforms allow for greater autonomy of the top performing institutions in terms of its management, course offerings, and more importantly financing.

The reform categorises universities based on their National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) scores, with institutions receiving more than 3.5 NAAC score categorised as Category I institutions, along with those ranked in the top 500 of global university league tables such as those by Times Higher Education (THE) and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS). The institutions in the category I and II will have greater autonomy and lesser dependence on University Grants Commission (UGC), under the UGC Act. Describing these as ‘the most far-reaching’ reforms in Indian higher education, former Niti Aayog Vice Chairperson and Professor of Economics at Columbia University, Arvind Panagariya is also stressing for a new legislation replacing UGC Act 1956.

While institutional reforms are absolutely necessary, the major concern is about bringing ‘quality’ in our education system. The primary reason for the poor quality is the lack of accountability of our varsities towards the students and towards the nation. The poor quality is often reflected in significantly lower research publications and citations. Even the best of Indian varsities often perform poorly on some of the key proxies for the research outlook – Research Income, Research Productivity and Influence. With greater autonomy, top-tier institutions will have greater flexibility in hiring and retaining leading faculties, scholars and researchers. However, the impact of the notified rules on GARs and ACRs is significantly dependent on the NAAC score, and thus the MHRD needs to work on rationalising NAAC scoring criteria, parameters and framework.

Since education at publicly funded institutions (including IITs and central universities) is highly subsidised, university administration often takes students for granted - as they have a limited say. There is a huge scope for the government in rationalising the education subsidy, by providing subsidies directly to the students rather than institutions. Such a model will empower students and would make varsities more accountable to the students, and will improve the "quality" of teaching. 

India’s elite institutions, such as IIMs and IITs have historically benefitted from their extremely selective admission process that is often considered among the toughest and highly competitive. But with widening global opportunities in the digitised world, universities in India can no longer only rely on these brightest lots of incoming students and must focus on their teaching and research performance. A growing number of talented Indian students are exploring the opportunities at leading British and American institutions. Thus, India needs a thorough review of its higher education policy.


(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL) 

Sanvit Shah

The author is strategy and management consultant at CarEd Advisory, and is interested in exploring political economy and foreign policy

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