Learning to grow

Indian higher education has registered improvement in the latest authoritative Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) global rankings. In the QS World University Rankings By Subject, 26 Indian departments entered the top 100 against 21 in 2019. This week, the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, represented India’s debut in the QS global top 50 Executive MBA (EMBA) rankings at 36. The EMBA programmes of two other Indian institutes also entered the extended rankings: The Indian School of Business at 81 and IIM Kozhikode at 101. India’s highest-ranked programmes included a joint 41st rank for the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay’s mineral & mining engineering programme and the University of Delhi’s development studies programme. IIT Kharagpur (46) for mineral & mining engineering, IIT Delhi (49) for electrical & electronic engineering, and IIT Bombay (50) for chemical engineering also figured in the top 50. This performance suggests an encouraging endorsement for India’s higher education universe.

But this performance raises two questions. First, India was an early mover in Asia, investing in higher technical education at roughly the same time as the Asian tigers, Japan and China. But the sobering truth is that it is these countries with institutes that consistently enjoy higher rankings. For instance, mainland China’s Tsinghua University’s electrical engineering course is ranked 11, National University of Singapore at 12, South Korea’s KAIST (17), and Japan’s University of Tokyo (20). Why Indian institutions should lag their Asian peers is a question that needs some hard analysis about the quality of investment, administration, and the intellectual climate. The pursuit of pseudo-scientific theories about India’s ancient knowledge of nuclear physics and plastic surgery does little to further the cause of innovation and higher technical education any more than the embrace of jugaad as a viable “Indian” technology.

This raises the second question, which the latest QS rankings also suggest. Seven Chinese universities (including those in Hong Kong) figure among the top 50 ranks. Overall, 12 Asian universities are there in the top 50. India is conspicuous by its absence until rank 172 (Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay). This is poor showing for a country that prides itself on its scientific and technological prowess. A good part of this has to do with the limited opportunities for higher academics in India, which has created the vicious cycle of the brain drain and a constrained universe of quality academic research. This trend has been heightened over the past decade. It is axiomatic that higher education, whether in the arts or sciences, demands access to the free flow of information to flourish. In the early days of nation-building, India, too, was a beneficiary of this global intellectual cross-pollination. But the political climate between the late 1960s and 1990s shrank the opportunities for such knowledge exchanges, a trend the current regime has accentuated. It is starkly visible in the latest index of academic freedom, where India performs poorly, with a score of 0.32 (one being the maximum value), behind even Pakistan. It is also one of the few countries in which the index has dipped over the past five years. This is as potent an indicator as possible of the challenges ahead, as this weakness is a major hurdle on the road to Atmanirbhar Bharat.

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