Policy-makers in India and other developing countries want to create what they call `world-class’ universities. I will be happier if some of their universities become part of the top 50 or 100 in the global ranking of higher education institutes. Most of their universities suffer from the lack of adequate financial resources and effective academics, and also due to undesirable bureaucracy. It would be useful socially if these constraints are mitigated. Rather than taking such an effort, the current fashion is to talk about creating world-class universities. This warrants a reality check.

Let us do a thought experiment. The king or the ruler of one of the countries in the Middle East or Central Asia plans to have a Harvard-like university in his territory. He has lots of money by selling petroleum and expansive stretches of land near the capital city. He may decide to pay academics salaries which are 50 or 100 percent more than what they can get in the Harvard. He can create the best quality infrastructure for the university.

Will he be able to attract academics who can be (are) in Harvard University? Academics in Harvard enjoy the life in the US and participate in the academic, social and other activities there. How many of them would be willing to move towards this new university? Though monetary gains are important for academics that alone is not adequate to attract them.

Will the new university be in a position to attract those students who plan to go to the Harvard? Sections of proficient students from all over the world may want to go to Harvard not only for the education that they get there but also for the employment and life in the US after their education. Will they be attracted by the conditions in the country which is trying to build a Harvard-like university?

If the students and academics in the new university cannot match with those of the Harvard, there will not be any similarity between these two even when a country spends a lot of money for that purpose. Such a university may end up with a rank which is 100s or 1000s below that of the Harvard. Needless to mention the cases of others which do not have enough financial resources. Hence it is easy to understand that building a very good university requires an appropriate socio-ecosystem and that cannot be recreated easily.

There is an underlying problem with the notion of `quality’ here. A useful notion of quality is that one gets the best possible outcome with the available resources and for a particular social purpose. Indian universities may be failing in this regard. However, there is no merit in measuring quality against an absolute and single standard.  By doing so, we will not enable institutes to deliver the best that is possible and required in a given context. Moreover these will not be able to be anywhere near the so called `world-class’ universities. There could be a `double failure’ then.

Pursuing a particular model of higher education

In the domain of higher education, the major trend is for each university to aspire to be like the Harvard (or something equivalent) but end up or continue with a rank of 100s or 1000s or 10000s below it.  Here everybody wants to copy a particular model but becomes an inferior copy in that process. The differentiating feature between two universities is in the degree of inferiority (compared to the best). There is a need to think about the reasons and implications of such a copying tendency in higher education.

One argument for copying could be that the technology or knowledge which is in use in a modern economy and society is, by and large, similar in all countries. Hence any university in the world is expected to impart such a `universal’ knowledge. However, this by itself does not justify the participation in the competition to be the `world-class’ university. There is another reason.

Unfortunately, a major part of the `benefit’ of higher education comes from its role as a signalling and screening device. Since employers cannot judge the `real ability’ or the earnestness of a potential employee by conducting interviews (an issue of information asymmetry), the former reckons the name/rank of the university as a way to screen candidates. Candidates use it to signal their `quality’ or `ability’.

However, this leads to a substantial wastage of social effort. All those efforts taken by students to write entrance examinations to get into a higher ranked institute do not add much value to the society. This is one form of rent-seeking or DUP – directly unproductive profit-seeking activity – which wastes the resources of the society.

One can see perverse outcomes of these social efforts. The majority of students who get into IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) have no interest in taking up manufacturing or construction jobs (or such engineering careers). Even when they take up software jobs, what they use is the basic training in mathematics and logical thinking. Most of those engineering subjects that they study in IIT have no use for their careers. The purpose of this higher education in IIT is to demonstrate their ability to do hard-work and crack difficult entrance examinations to the potential employers.

There are other such cases. One can see unemployed and under-paid doctors with a degree in medicine in Indian cities but there is a severe scarcity of medical professionals in rural areas. The intense competition to get a degree in medicine leads to a situation where medical colleges end up admitting only those students who do not want to live in rural areas. People who are likely to improve the health status in these areas cannot get admission in these colleges.

When the main benefit of higher education is its role as a signalling/screening device, society’s demand is to enhance the `value’ of each university/institute in this regard. Going up in the ranking based on this particular model – without thinking about whether it is a realistic goal or not – becomes the main preoccupation of the society and the policy issue in higher education. When everybody attempts to go up in the scale, there may not be a significant improvement for any one.

The pursuit of this singular model is attractive to academics too. Their interest lies in self-reproduction. It is easier for them to transfer the knowledge that they have acquired, rather than equipping students to apply the knowledge in their employment and social context. Academics, who are the products of this particular model, have a strong interest in its self-perpetuation.

This model of higher education aggravates the exclusion and inequality that prevails in society. The intense competition of students to get into, per se, can enhance the ranking of a higher education institute. That is why the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) retain certain reputation despite the not-so-laudable research carried out by the faculty there. The ranking of a university depends on the share of students who are rejected at the time of admission. Academics and university administrators boast of the higher ratio of the number of applicants to that of seats and reckon it as a measure of the `quality’ of their program. Or the academic ranking of a university depends on its ability to exclude students.

This continues to be so even if a small share of seats is given to those students who belong to under-privileged groups. This is either too inadequate to address the issues of social exclusion or the students coming from such groups may fail to cope up with the (unwanted) competition to emulate the universal model.

Need to pursue alternative models

The pursuit of this model has led to the neglect of many useful activities that higher education needs to address, especially in countries like India. For example, India badly needs a quality higher education to create school-teachers. This is necessary to improve its awfully poorer achievements in schooling. Objectives such as these can be side-lined in the struggle to create world-class universities.   

There is an urgent need to pursue alternative models in higher education, especially if we want to create a more inclusive and less unequal society. Some of the challenges in pursuing such alternative models are described here  and here.

There is a lack of appreciation of the challenges involved in pursuing such alternative models. If we create a teacher training college where 50 students are admitted from a pool of 5000 applicants, it is less likely to meet the social purpose in a country like India, even if the quality of these students becomes closer to a universal standard. These students, when they pass out, may seek and get jobs in elite private schools (where the working conditions are attractive) or may pursue higher levels of education. They will not be interested in becoming school teachers in the interior parts of the country where their services are needed. Hence if the competition at the time of admission is a marker of `quality’ for the previously described model of higher education, identifying, and providing education to those who are likely to serve a specific social purpose should be the hallmark of this alternative model of higher education.