In its report on higher education for the Twelfth Plan, the working group of the erstwhile Planning Commission identified expansion, inclusion and excellence as the three pillars for growth. The NDA government had the theme of excellence in its 2016 annual budget, with a proposal to make 10 institutions each in the public and private sectors globally competitive. The challenge of excellence is to develop liberal institutions founded on academic rigour, high scholarship and equitable access for all classes of students. Quite ambitiously, the Ministry of Human Resource Development has taken the decision to give Institution of Eminence (IoE) status to six institutes, three each from the public and private sectors. Potentially, this will help the select few rise above the many State, Central and private universities, national-level institutes of technology, science, management and humanities, and attract talent. While it is a creditable achievement, the recognition raises the bar for the chosen few: the IITs at Mumbai and Delhi and the IISc in the public category, and BITS Pilani and the Manipal Academy of Higher Education, which are private. Giving the tag to Jio Institute, which is yet to come up, generated understandable controversy. It should be ensured that this conditional recognition is fulfilled transparently, and that it meets the requirements on governance structure, infrastructure and faculty within three years.
The idea of developing centres of higher learning advances the Nehruvian vision of building ‘temples of modern India’. The IoEs can become models of autonomy, academic innovation and equity of access, and lead to a transformation of higher education. That there is need for urgent reform became clear during the selection process: the empowered committee found that State universities had a low output because some of them had several faculty members recruited on contract basis, with no incentive to do research. Such ad hocism must end, and public universities should be insulated from political pressures. Vice-chancellors should be appointed on merit, free of ideological biases. With good governance structures and significant new financial grants, the selected public institutions will be able to innovate on courses and encourage research. The growth of these and other national institutions will also depend on policies to raise the expenditure on R&D as a percentage of GDP. Among countries with a comparable research output, India with 0.8% R&D spending trails Russia, Brazil, South Korea and even Singapore, according to Unesco data. Islands of eminence can inspire, but the long-term goal should be to raise the quality of higher education in all institutions through academic reform. The quality is uneven, and at the bottom levels, abysmal. At the same time, initiatives by charitable trusts — which have declined due to political support for commercialisation and aid cuts — must be welcomed, as this would help open more affordable colleges and universities.
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