Towards a World Class University

It is indeed a special privilege and an honour to have been invited to deliver the convocation address of Charotar University of Science & Technology. I enjoyed reading the inspiring vision statement of the University. I was proud to see that the University has the dream of becoming  world class in education and research. This dream can be converted into reality, if we match this ‘great ambition’ with  ‘stimulating ambience’. I have no doubt that this dream will become a reality.

Let me begin by extending my wholehearted congratulations and my very best wishes to the young graduates. You are going to enter a new exciting world, which is changing rapidly. You have the responsibility of building the future India, which will be a leader in the comity of nations.

President Obama had famously said “education and innovation are the currencies for the 21st century.” This is true.

What is the most powerful equation in the world? Some will say F = ma, resulting from Newton’s second law of motion. Some will say E = mc2, Einstein’s famous equation. I will say, it E = F. E is education. F is future. Education is equal to future. No education, no future. For the individual, for the society, for the nation.

In the same way innovation will drive both competitiveness and growth. Therefore European Union calls itself `Innovation Union’. That is why our Prime Minister has declared 2010-20 as the Indian Decade of Innovation.

I will go even further and say ‘education in innovation’ and ‘innovation in education’ are the dire needs of the hour. World class Universities of the future will be those, who excel in achieving these twin goals. Indian universities should have the dreams of reaching the top ranking. But where are we today ?

Indian University Ranking

The rankings of the top 500 universities in the world is done regularly. Indian universities with one or two exceptions do not figure in this ranking and that too somewhere in the 200 plus positions.  Forget about global ranking. Where are we even within Asia? If one looks at the QS Asian University rankings for 2012, no Indian university has made it into the top 30 amongst the 300 Asian institutions. And only 4 make it in the top 50! This is worrisome.

Can we create world class universities in India? The answer is “Yes”. But to understand how these could be created, one must get a sense of the way such great world class universities are created and remain world class for ever and ever.

Three Pillars for a World Class University

No matter what indicators are used – and by whom – Harvard University always occupies the first place ! Why?

Since 2007, I have been a having a brief stint at Harvard University as a Distinguished Visiting Professor every year. I found out the reasons as to why Harvard University is always ranked number one.

The first is the single minded pursuit of excellence, both in teaching and research.

The second is the unflinching commitment to the true institutional autonomy without even a trace of a political interference what so ever.

The third is world class governance, which provides an unshakable and robust foundation leading to a long term stability and sustainability.

Let me elaborate on these three pillars now : excellence, autonomy and governance.


Let us come to excellence first. There is a growing realization that mere teaching without research is sterile. So there has to be an absolutely uncompromising pursuit of excellence, both in teaching and research. This means getting the very best of faculty, not the second best. This also means getting the very best of students, not the second best.

Excellence in teaching is vitally important. Although knowledge is known to double up every five years, our curricula remain the same. Our methods of delivery, the chalk and talk, have not altered despite the infinite possibilities that have opened up due to the advent of technology. One often complains about the ‘tyrany of large numbers’ in India.  But taking recourse to new technology can make a difference to the challenge of both numbers and distances. Our methods of assessment are based on rewarding selective and uncritical rote learning rather than analytical abilities and creative thinking. All these and more can be tackled only through innovation.

Excellence in research means there has to be a continuous thrust on not only `working’ at the frontiers of research but `creating’ new frontiers. This means an aggressive and relentless thrust on saying the `first word in science’ or the `last word in science’. Or doing science that will “lead” and not “follow”.

In these universities, Education disseminates known knowledge. Research creates new knowledge. Innovation converts knowledge into wealth. There is a seamless connection between education, research and innovation in world class universities.

Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, MIT, Stanford, California, Princeton, etc. are universities that are brilliant examples of this seamless connection. There is this full understanding of the route to `Laxmi’ through `Saraswati’ – thus not only understanding the wealth creation potential of knowledge but also creating an ‘ecosystem’ in which this can happen most effectively.

Let me give you an example. George Whitesides in Harvard University is a close friend of mine. He is the highest cited living scientist in the world today. This means he has scaled the highest peaks of excellence in fundamental scientific research. But at the same time he has founded companies based on his research. The market capitalization of the companies that he has floated is more than 30 billion dollars! Where are our George Whitesides in India ?


Autonomy is the lifeline of an academic institution. The Kothari Commission (1966) was eloquent in stating the role of university autonomy. It said  “only an autonomous institution, free from regimentation of ideas and pressure of party or power politics, can pursue truth fearlessly and build up in its teachers and students, habits of independent thinking and a spirit of enquiry unfettered by the limitations and prejudices of the near and the immediate which is so essential for the development of a free society”.

National Knowledge Commission (2009) severely indicted the erosion of autonomy in the Indian University system. It concluded “the autonomy of universities is eroded by interventions from government and intrusions from political processes …….. experience suggests that implicit politicization has made governance of universities exceedingly difficult and much more susceptible to entirely nonacademic interventions from outside. This problem needs to be recognized and addressed in a systematic manner within universities but also outside, particularly in governments, legislatures and political parties”.

The autonomy must flow across the university from teachers to students. The teacher should have a complete autonomy to design and deliver his course and also the assessment. Similarly, the students should be allowed to take courses of their choice in different disciplines and different universities. They can be awarded a degree on the basis of the credits they have earned. For this a flexible credit based modular curriculum should be created. It should be harmonized across colleges and later perhaps even across universities. Students should have choices on the subjects, teachers, colleges, etc.

Autonomy of the University system is so important that it continues to be discussed and debated even today in Europe, which has had a rich history of academic excellence for centuries. For example, the national strategic priorities for higher education were the object of the law passed in France in as recently as August 2007. They were referred to as `University Autonomy Law’. They provided the Universities with a new system of governance and real autonomy in terms of their budgets and human resource management. Universities were allowed to create University Foundations or even partnership with companies. And this is being done elsewhere in Europe too. For example, in Finland, since 2007, each University can have a legal status of a Foundation, thereby increasing their financial autonomy.

In United Kingdom, the higher educational institutions have always operated with a very high degree of autonomy. Many Universities in UK are developing strong executive structures to replace `management by committees’. This approach leads to a dynamic management in an environment, where the decisions cannot wait for the next committee meeting. Creation of clear and well-defined lines of responsibility, clearly delegated authority and coherent management by teams of academics and administration is the key. Indeed, devolution of power is the key word. Experience all around shows that more entrepreneurial culture can be created by more decentralization and more democratization, say by giving powers to departments, schools, facilities, etc.


Let us look at governance now. The governance structure of our Universities has not changed with changing times. Rules of yester years, that were framed in a different context, continue as such. Context decides the content. When the context changes, the content has to change. Unfortunately that has not happened. Centralization of decision making with ineffective participation and contribution by faculty and students has created a situation that is far removed from the much desired process of collegial consensus making.

Governance focusses on the `rules and mechanisms’ by which various stakeholders can and will influence the decisions, the ways and means by which these stakeholders could be made accountable, and finally, to whom will they be made accountable.

Over-regulated systems with interference by multiple agencies tend to stifle innovation and creativity, promote corruption and also malpractices. On the other hand, a under-regulated system encourages exploitation, leads to a disorder and eventually to erosion of social justice. A balanced overachieving and transparent regulatory mechanism that ensures accountability can instill a sense of confidence amongst all the stakeholders, from the academic community to the society.

We must design, develop and deliver new solutions which will not only lead to the adoption of ‘best practices’ in governance but also hopefully create the ‘next practices’. Here is a five point agenda for the way forward.

The role of external stakeholders in institutional governance bodies cannot be underestimated. External stakeholders bring to the table an outside-in view, new insights, new expertise and much needed transparency. External guidance balanced with a traditional but nuanced collegiate management style, brings the benefits of managerial self-governance, is critical for setting up the best governance practices.

Universities and colleges should be regularly reviewed by eminent peers, well known for their independence, domain knowledge as well as critical and visionary thinking. This external peer review process coupled with a rigorous quality assurance framework across the board covering all the functions of the university would act wonders.

There is a dire need for innovation in every aspect of education, innovation in financing of higher education. Land is the biggest physical asset that the Universities have. Can it not be used to generate the much needed resources for the university through innovative public-private partnerships? Can we not set up some innovative asset management plans in full consonance with the aims and objectives of an academic institution? Such strategies have worked wonders in some of the advanced nations. The rules of the game must be determined by the government and systems put in place so that they are scrupulously adhered to.

A National Resolve

There is an urgent need for a single apex body in the field of higher education. It should treat knowledge in an integrated manner. There have been repeated pleas on this for almost five decades that have come from commissions to committees to scholarly papers. In fact, almost five decades ago, Kothari Commission (1966) had enunciated a first principle “all higher education should be regarded as an integrated whole”. The idea of ‘smart regulation with light oversight’, with one Apex body is the ultimate solution.

Several education reforms bills that are pending before the Parliament need to be cleared on a fast track. These include The National Commission for Higher Education and Research Bill (2010), The National Accreditation Regulatory Autonomy for Higher Education Institution Bill (2010), Prohibition of Unfair Practices in Education Institutions Bill (2010), The Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operations) Bill (2010), Universities for Research and Innovation Bill (2012), etc.

Let us just keep aside all the differences for the sake of the future of our children, for the future of our nation. I feel we need a national resolve. This means `India first’. This means `my India’. This means `one India’. This means each one of the Indians says `India matters to me, I want to matter to India, more’.