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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Should we pamper our best institutions

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).


Yash Pratap Singh said...

Can we explain the current inequality in funding to IITs and other elite institutions as compared to other universities and institutions using Kuznets curve? Since India is an emerging economy, there is a greater inequality between the select institutions and other institutions. As the economy becomes more developed (from the output of these select institutions and universities) the inequality would decrease; as the select universities and institutions would become self-sufficient and the funds could be diverted to other institutions. I read somewhere a few months back that IIT, IISc, NIT, IISERs and other central universities (which may be 20% of the total educational set-ups) contribute about 80% of the research output (Pareto 80/20 principle; hence this could also justify funding).

The state of education in many universities (such as State Technical Universities) is dire. Despite, reasonably high salaries (after the 6th pay commission of India) the faculty in those Tier - III institutions are not interested and passionate about teaching. Funding those institutes which don't look promising in a foreseeable future would have no outputs. They are recruiting undergraduates of their own college/university to teach the upcoming batches. There are no attempts to foster innovation and deploy technology to enhance and augment educational outcomes. The rapid expansion of MOOCs is also not being utilized to the advantage of the Tier - III and lower institutions, universities, and colleges.

Also, I believe we as a country are not serious about education. Neither the previous governments were serious nor is the current government. The government has not been increasing education budgets. There has been corruption in the educational institutes. The government has been not been able to ensure free and fair examinations in these universities. The quality of education has been so sub-standard. MHRD is not willing to provide autonomy to the select institute which is substantially funded (such as the IITs, NITs).

I totally agree that we should not work towards the rankings only but focus on more issues. I also feel that we need to scrape off the ranking framework - NIRF.

In short, Should we pamper our best institutions? If we replace the word, 'pamper' with 'providing high funds for them' or 'providing autonomy', I would assertively say, 'yes' but pampering in its literal sense is a bit too much.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Yash, I agree that pamper indicates bias and could have been avoided. If we reduce the problem to just consider IITs and NITs. There is a huge difference in the funding levels. As I said in the blog (and what was discussed in BRICS meeting), difference in research funding, expecting higher research output from well funded institutes is alright. But if the funding levels are so different that even teaching and learning gets affected, that is where the more serious problem is. And I think the current funding levels of NITs are very poor from that perspective. And many NITs are doing a decent job despite all constraints.

Yash Pratap Singh said...

Prof. @Dheeraj Sanghi: I agree that the funding should be adequate to take care of operational expenses and teaching and learning expenses. When it comes to NITs, I would say that few NITs, I know, are doing the decent job despite the low funding that they have. In short, the government should invest heavily in the education sector. Recently, one of my Professor (physics) at IIT Gandhinagar wrote a very nice article, titled "Can India reap the demographic dividend in higher education?" - The country in the next decade would need to handle the huge demand in higher education (especially states such as UP, Bihar with demographic bulge). And all that would require clear focus and high investments and the government, at least it seems to me, is not so serious about it but is more focused on rhetoric.

Digbijoy said...

a) It is unfair to give equal funding to all institutes in the country, obviously. The top ones deserve more for various reasons (even just maintaining a cleanroom costs many crores per year). That being said, the tier-II and tier-III institutes/universities should also get increment in their funding. Else, as you rightly pointed out, the gap between tier-I and the rest increases. Most of the students are in tier-II and III universities, so improving their quality is of utmost importance towards overall improvement of the country's educational scenario.

b) Increased funding to tier-II and III places doesn't necessarily mean an improvement of quality. Hiring of better faculty, workshops/seminars to give better exposure, periodic evaluation, elimination of nepotism etc. are also critical.

c) Pursuing ranking is useless. Better to pursue excellence. If we have world class fundamental research and relevant/viable technological developments in the IITs/IISc, then why is ranking even relevant?

d) I disagree with the counter argument that ranking attracts foreign talent and increases soft power. Foreign students/faculty will themselves flock to an indian institute if it yields cutting-edge research. For example, if low-cost, high-efficient power transistors are invented at IIT Bombay which is rapidly changing the electric car landscape in India, will not Tesla or MIT folks flock to IITB? If fundamental breakthroughs are reported in gene therapy or cancer treatment from TIFR or IISc, will not the ranking improve by itself besides attracting global talent?

In short, I think running behind ranking is a useless pursuit on its own. We should just focus on excellent research, and ranking will improve.

[The views expressed are my own and have nothing to do with my employer, i.e. IISc].

-- Digbijoy Nath (CeNSE, IISc)

sriram said...

My Answer is NO. Forgive me for my lengthy ans. Thanks in advance if you read through.

If we are thinking that IITs do not figure in top 100 because they don't have an additional 2000Cr, its a myth. This might be one of the issue, but not the main issue.

We have some excellent faculty in IITs- world class (including the author of this blog).Though 10-15% students can be compared to worldclass , they lack a well rounded personality in them. How many IEEE trans papers come from IITs every year?. Though I do not have numbers - its few..I am sure.

Some steps which come on top of my mind.

# Improve living conditions of hostels , get rid of old simplistic view that students must not have a comfortable life. This clears the first hurdle for more foreign students to come and study in IIT.

# When we have more foreign students (please do not make indians who have studied in CBSE schools outside the country as 'Foreign' as is the case with IIITH),students will develop well rounded development and increase their space of thinking and make them better. No doubt about this.This is true even in case of MNCs when experienced people from other countries/their principals come to india and work for 1-2 years, the outlook of local company changes from service mindset to a product mindset. I have seen this.

# In-order to enable the above , we need to have multiple entry criteria - select from Olympiads (intl level) who have participated in the final round .

# Change the pedagogy : Open Curriculum / Syllabus. Come out of the mindset that first year has to be a broad-based common syllabus etc. In this aspect , IITH is following 'Fractal Academics' where you have 1 credit courses, and students study quite a lot even for 1 credit. There is no need that you must study 3 credit full course or nothing. If you are interested sign up for additional credits in that subject.

# Every student should be attached to a prof every year to get involved in research and industry project . You may get attached to the same prof every year if you like the subject and prof. This will need 2 credit mandatory research work every sem. Do this with utmost seriousness. Faculty should be evaluated for research and projects quotient.

# Primary job of the faculty should be research. Teaching is next. Make use of MOOCs for teaching. REsearch should be primary. Increase the standards. E.g If a student has 5 credit Machine Learning course , they must be in top 25% of leader board for a problem in Kagle.

# Invite more visiting /parttime faculty from Industry research. Pay them well. Don't emotionally blackmail them saying 'Oh , don't make money , because you are a teacher , noble profession etc'. Let faculty make money with patents , research work. Institute will get their share. Use this money to get best and interested students for Mtech/Phd. Phd should be as good as a job in an MNC as far as salary/stipend is concerned.

# Marketing for more industry sponsored research projects. Allow and encourage faculty to travel abroad, make presentations , present the work of the institute give them the requisite marketing skills. Change for them from their boredom. When you work hard for 5 years , that will set the trend for faculty and students

Make these a habit. Relying on Govt money is not the solution.

Dhaval Patel said...

I would never entertain pampering the institute. So as I said... on linkdin

Let the institute to come forward, put proposal that they can achieve rank in top-200 rank and what are the plan and what they need in terms of financial support. How much time they need to get into top-200? Some part of the government money comes from tax payer's pocket and every one is accountable...

Pankaj Saraf said...

The first time, I see a valuation of research. I completely agree to it. Research and science, are the back bone for the development. If it can not be paid in our country, our coming generations will never give value to the product development. And we are at a situation, where we appreciate flipcart, as a successful startups from IIT, where is our SUN Microsystems, which can really put the stamp of the technical excellence.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

Thanks everyone for their comments.