Rethinking the Role of Quality in India’s Higher Education System


Rethinking the Role of Quality in India’s Higher Education System

By Arvind Rangaswamy

Higher education institutes in India need to infuse higher quality in multiple areas and particularly fast-track initiatives around attracting high quality faculty.

“India produces less than half the number of PhD’s as do China and the U.S.  This number is grossly inadequate, even ignoring quality differences.”

“Education, it is said, is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.  Without high-quality faculty, we will merely be filling the pail, and not lighting the fire within the students who want to reach for something more in life for themselves and for others.”

I am a product of the Indian higher education system.  I am also a product of the American educational system.  And, I have been teaching in universities in the U.S. for about 30 years.  Thus, nearly my entire adult life has been involved in some way with the education sector.  Over the past few years, I have had several occasions to get a closer look at the many facets of India’s higher education system.  In 2009, Penn State University (www.psu.edu), where I am employed, asked me to co-chair a committee to explore strategic opportunities for Penn State to engage with Indian universities to enhance our own research, teaching, and global footprint.  To implement this committee’s recommendations, I have since engaged with officials in India’s Ministry of Human Resources Development, and with several higher education institutions in India, such as IITD, IITM, TISS, MDI, and IIMB.  In this article, I want to share my observations about the role of faculty quality in enhancing the overall quality of Indian universities. 

Much has been written by many experts and government-appointed commissions about the state of Indian higher education, its shortcomings, and potential ways to fix the problems.  While there are many overall goals that have been proposed for India’s higher education system, three goals seem to be central: (1) Make higher education more accessible to more students so that Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) reaches levels that are comparable to those of developed economies, (2) Ensure equity so that poor and socially disadvantaged groups gain access to higher education, and (3) Enhance the quality and excellence of the education available to students. Although it is often assumed by policy makers that all three goals could be simultaneously pursued with equal vigor, that is not so.  For example, high quality often means careful selection and exclusion of many students, i.e., less access.  In 2012, only 9,647 out of 512,000 test takers were admitted to one of the IITs (less than 2%).  In fact, increasing access (i.e., providing college degrees) without substantial increases in quality will lead to adverse social consequences by raising expectations but not employment outcomes.  Recently, Infosys sorted through 1.3 million applicants only to find around 2% that were qualified for jobs, not unlike the 2% admit rate to IIT’s.

Quality faculty

In a speech in 2007, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh noted that about 67% of Indian universities and 90% of Indian colleges are of poor quality.  At the core, the quality of an educational institution (and consequently, its reputation) depends on the quality of the students, the quality of the faculty, and the quality of the educational experience, i.e., the magic that happens when quality students interact with quality faculty. I have no doubt that Indian students have the intrinsic ability to hold their own against students from other countries if they have access to a good-quality education.  However, when it comes to the quality of faculty and the quality of the educational experience, there is much that is lacking, especially when one ventures outside of the IIT’s, IIM’s and the central universities. As someone put it well, in India we have “A” students taught by “B” faculty working for an “F” administration.  In the rest of this article, I will focus only on issues pertaining to enhancing the quality of faculty, and will not discuss issues related to enhancing the quality of education in general (which is a major subject worthy of a separate article).  I will also not address issues related to the policy goals of educational access and equity.

One could view every good university as a unique aggregator of faculty talent.  And, the top universities of the world are defined by having high-quality faculty that cannot be duplicated by others.  In this sense, there can be only one Harvard University, because its unique faculty talent cannot be replicated.  In a FICCI meeting a few years ago, a speaker suggested that a country of India’s size and capabilities should be able to create 10 Harvard’s in ten years.  That, of course, is a pipedream, because there cannot be two Harvard universities, or for that matter, two IITM’s.   And, further, not all universities can, or should, aim for the highest levels of faculty talent.  By necessity, there is a segmentation of faculty talent, with different types of educational institutions attracting different segments of faculty.     

Quality is non-additive, which means we cannot simply add up the work of two average faculty members and get the results delivered by one high-quality faculty member.  This also means that increases in quality of education will involve disproportionate increases in costs for realizing the higher quality, a cost structure that is less palatable than the linear increase in costs associated with increasing the access to education. But, we need to get the quality initiatives started.  Where should we start?  My contention is that the source of the quality bottleneck is at the very top, and that is where we need to focus our attention first.  Don’t get me wrong.  There are some outstanding scholars at Indian universities who can compete with the very best in the world.  But, there are not enough of them.  We need many more high-quality faculty and administrators to provide the intellectual and administrative leadership for many existing and new educational institutions that are emerging.   

Today, it is a global market for faculty talent.  This means that a world-class university has to recruit in the global market for relatively scarce talent, which is the obverse of the situation in which widely distributed talent can be obtained from outsourced locations at lower costs.  It often takes several years beyond a Master’s degree for someone to obtain a PhD and become eligible to be part of the global faculty talent pool.  The PhD education process is not scalable because it requires a lot of expensive one-on-one mentoring.  India produces less than half the number of PhD’s as do China and the U.S.  This number is grossly inadequate, even ignoring quality differences. Thus, building a university with top faculty could take years, or even generations, unless the university adopts fast-track processes for recruiting talent, and has the resources to pay roughly equivalent global prices for that talent.  China has tried to speed up the process via such initiatives as the “Thousand Talent Program” which provides substantial funds for recruiting up to 1,000 star faculty from foreign countries in a span of five years.  Many regions have set up their own Talent Programs to attract star faculty to their locations. 

Likewise, the Indian government, perhaps in partnership with Indian industries, should establish and fund programs for attracting a significant number of faculty stars from abroad who would serve to raise aspirations and set quality standards for entire disciplines and professions.  When well-known foreign scholars have participated in conferences in China, some have been offered faculty positions on the spot under the Talent Programs, based on recommendations from their Chinese colleagues.  Recruiting top talent in such a proactive manner is a must.  Most such scholars are not going to respond to recruitment ads, certainly not to the type of bureaucratic ads for faculty positions that I see in Indian newspapers. Perhaps the “National Professor” program currently in place could be greatly expanded for this purpose.

Leadership in higher education

Even more important for removing the quality bottleneck, India needs a large number of leaders for its educational establishments (particularly Deans and Vice-Chancellors), who have had experience at the world’s leading universities.  This recruiting of academic leaders would be well worth the investment and effort because such leaders could help leverage scarce resources and direct them to uses better aligned with the future, than if the funds were to continue to be disbursed through the current entrenched system of grants and excessive government regulations.  The recent appointment of Raghuram Rajan as Governor of the Reserve Bank of India is perhaps an indication that the Indian government might be willing to take similar bold steps with appointments to academic institutions.  Another hopeful sign is that the number of visas granted to Americans to work in India has increased substantially in recent years (New York Times, Feb 12, 2012).

Top academic leaders from Western educational institutions bring with them strong academic values and experiences that promote disinterested scholarship without regard to the religious, political or other affiliations of the source of an argument or piece of knowledge.  They will encourage wide sharing of knowledge both within the university and in the local economy in terms of curriculum, research, and teaching.  As a result, strong academic values have the potential to become institutional norms, and to not remain as just the private values of a few motivated faculty members.  Traditional academic values are under threat even in Western countries because it is becoming harder to justify funding for educational institutions without associating those funds with specific performance outcomes.  But, instilling strong academic values is a foundational requirement at a time when India is in the process of transforming its entire higher education enterprise.  When top academic leaders participate in the apex bodies that set or implement higher education policies and funding guidelines, or establish the norms associated with accreditation, the entire system will benefit.   

All of this will cost a substantial amount of money.  Even if India was able to recruit only 100 such faculty/academic leaders per year over the next five years, my rough estimate is that the cost of this effort would be $600 – 750 million (3,600 to 4,500 crores) over the first five years of recruitment, with continuing expenses of $200 million per year thereafter.  However, the “quality multiplier” effect of this group should be very high, helping to diffuse quality throughout the educational system.  In any case, the talent recruiting effort could be started as an experiment on a limited scale the first couple of years, and then expanded when the return on investment is established on a firmer basis.

It is fashionable these days to talk about online education as a way to resolve the “quality” problem without incurring substantial costs.  A single superstar faculty member can indeed reach millions of students and inspire them, but does that necessarily give them a high quality education (ignore, for a moment, the credential value of a well-established traditional university)?  I do not doubt the value of widely distributing knowledge in an understandable manner, and the online medium may even work well for providing quality educational experiences to the masses in a few topic areas.  But there are many subject areas where the online medium fails if it is the primary medium of education (e.g., medicine, architecture, chemistry).  Gaining knowledge is necessary, but not sufficient, for getting a good education in those areas.  Also, education is not just about learning content, but is more importantly a way to also learn how to convert content into beneficial actions and outcomes, and for gaining useful life experiences, such as finding strong mentors from within a collective learning community, building lifelong friendships, becoming a better person, learning to thrive in competitive intellectual environments, gaining hands-on skills, and the like.  There is a real danger that the allure and reliance on online education will lead to a two-tier society with the well-to-do students getting a more complete and meaningful higher-quality educational experience in the offline world, and the poor being reduced to getting an online education.

Attracting top faculty and academic leadership talent, even if this approach is successful, is less than half the story.  It is difficult to put academic values into action, even if those values are shared by an entire community, but it is an even bigger challenge in the presence of a perceived elite group, which could engender envy, resentment, and system-level dysfunctions.  Therefore, an environment has to be created so top talent can thrive, and in turn, recruit additional talent to reinforce the learning communities that keep feeding the quality multiplier.  While there are many things that need to be carefully thought through to create such a conducive environment (e.g., academic freedom, strong PhD program), I would like to focus here on the need for a clear and detailed quality assessment system.  Greater rewards should be subject to stricter accountability.  Typically, top universities in the U.S. use a combination of the following four criteria for evaluating faculty scholarship (teaching quality is measured via other metrics):

  1. Quality of the journals in which the faculty member publishes his/her work (the top universities expect a significant number of publications in “A” journals, especially for junior faculty).
  2. Impact measures associated with published articles (typically, this is based on citation counts, and the types of papers that cite the work of the author)[1].
  3. Visibility of faculty member in his/her field (e.g., honors, author of widely-adopted textbook, editorial appointments in prestigious journals, board memberships in companies and professional associations in their areas of expertise).
  4. Productivity (regular contributions to the scholarship of a field, in terms of the number of publications and other measures of output).

Even when all of this information is available about a faculty member, it requires special expertise to judge the quality of scholarship.  While it is possible for faculty members to game some of these metrics, typically these metrics are not directly under their control (e.g., citations and honors are decisions made by others).  Thus, we can bring a measure of objectivity to the difficult task of assessing faculty contributions.  Academic leaders could also be evaluated on the same four metrics, but as they apply to the entire faculty for which they provide leadership (in addition to other metrics of leadership performance).

Well-designed management and information systems are needed for the collection and use of such metrics for every faculty member at an educational institution.  In fact, a customizable system could be designed by an apex body of academicians for use in all educational institutions in India.  For example, companies such as DigitalMeasures.com have developed flexible IT systems for this purpose, which are used in several U.S. universities.

Finally, I would like to point out that the true test of the quality of a university is the employability of its students by industries, governments, and educational institutions, and for that matter, employability in the global labor markets.  In this sense, faculty quality is a means to an end – to produce students who embody good values, have a passion for learning, and are well-prepared for the jobs of tomorrow.  

Education, it is said, is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.  Without high-quality faculty, we will merely be filling the pail, and not lighting the fire within the students who want to reach for something more in life for themselves and for others.  It is time to re-kindle the spirit that built the great Nalanda University 2,600 years ago, which in its time was among the very best “universities” of the world and served as a source of inspiration and as a magnet for top students pursuing many different fields of study.

The author is Anchel Professor of Marketing Penn State University. His research is focused on developing concepts, methods and models to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of marketing using information technologies, an area in which he is internationally recognized.

[1] A recent bibliometric analysis of India’s scientific publications revealed that the indexed average citations per paper published by a researcher from India increased from 0.35 in 1981-85 to 0.68 in 2006-2010 (compared to the world benchmark figure of 1.0).  The indexed average U.S. citation rate for the corresponding periods were 1.41 and 1.37 (www.dst.gov.in/whats_new/whats_new12/report.pdf).

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