This is not my typical blog where I write my views and we can have some discussion through comments (or outside the blog like on FaceBook). This is an issue that I am very confused about and am seeking clarity from my readers.
I attended a meeting of BRICS university admins in Brazil last summer. In the Brazilian presentation, they raised an issue. They pointed out that most countries were raising the budgets of their top few universities substantially so that they have greater representation in top 100 ranked universities in the world. Certainly China, Russia and South Africa had done that. India was thinking about it, and so was Brazil. And of course, lots of other countries have used this strategy to have more of their universities in top 100 or top 500. The Brazilian delegation was concerned that a very large amount of money will be used for very small number of students and faculty for a questionable goal like getting into a top 100 rank, while the same money could be used to improve the quality of education across a much larger set of institutions.
Why am I remembering this. Well, MHRD has a couple of schemes of this nature, which were designed to encourage the better institutes to get into top 100 or 200 ranks. And one of them, Vishwajeet, which was designed to help the older 7 IITs to get into top 100 ranking, has been disallowed by the Finance Ministry. This news a couple of weeks ago reignited my thought. Of course, another scheme called "Institutes of Eminence" is being continued where the Government will select 10 private and 10 government institutes. The government institutes will get about Rs. 1000 crores each over the next 10 years. And all these 20 institutes will get a lot of autonomy.
Of course, the debate in India may not be very important since the money involved is very small. Vishwajeet scheme was to cost Rs. 8700 crores over 7 years, and Institutes of Eminence scheme will cost Rs. 10,000 crores over 10 years. The first one is anyway discarded, and the second one has a tiny budget compared to overall education budget of the country. But the debate is still important because IITs will continue to push the Government to keep giving them additional funds under one pretext or the other.
So, here are the arguments that I have heard.
First, the additional funds is a mirage. The year that such schemes start, the government may budget higher amounts, but then not all the money is released/spent and the increase every year is less than inflation, so after a few years, the top institutions who were anyway getting a higher share of the budget start getting even higher share of the budget and the poorer institutions get their budgets reduced in real terms.
Second, while there can be substantial gaps in the research infrastructure of different universities, there should not be very large gaps in the teaching and learning quality of universities. If reduction of budget of the second level universities start affecting their teaching programs, it would be bad for the society, since most citizens get trained in these institutions and not in the top institutes. Also gap between top institutes and the next set (as it exists in India) causes too much stress for admission to the top institutes.
Third, the ranking is not a worthwhile goal to spend lots of money on. Ranking, by itself, does not give any benefits. There should be a mechanism to continuously improve the quality of our educational institutions and ranking should only be a by product. So even if you have more money, think of how you would improve the quality of whatever is important for that institute.
The opposite viewpoint that I have heard is:
Ranking is important. Higher ranks attract foreign students, foreign faculty, which allows a country to project its soft power. Having higher ranked universities give more prestige to the country, and it becomes easier to attract investments particularly in high technology areas where trained manpower is a critical input.
Now, my questions for the readers:
1. Are there other reasons for or against substantial hike in funding of top institutions.
2. In light of these arguments, should Indian government come up with another version of Vishwajeet (perhaps not restricted to IITs, choose 5-7 institutions across the board, and perhaps an even higher budget than what was proposed).