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India is world-class nation without world-class varsities: Philip G Altbach

Q&A with author, researcher and professor at Boston College

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One among the most influential thinkers, Philip G. Altbach, author; researcher and professor at , is clear what India needs to do to solve its higher education mess. India, says he, is characterized by some pinnacles of excellence in a sea of mediocrity. Overall the system is not at par with best standards but there are really some good institutions in it. In an interview, Altbach tells Kalpana Pathak and Disha Kanwar, India has some extremely smart people trying to do interesting stuff despite significant odds in the country. Excerpts:

How do you look at India's higher education system?
I think all education systems especially large ones need to have a variety of institutions at different levels with different missions. One of the things that you do not have so much talk about in India, as compared to China, is the obsession with world class. China has funded in 100 of its universities very heavily to make them strongly research based. In India, none of this has happened. India is a world class country without world class universities. It deserves some world class institutions as it is a very large and growing economy. There are a lot of smart people in India but they go away to other countries as they do not find top level institutions here. There should also be universities focussed on teaching and that should be big majority.

So when you compare India and China's education system, what are the things that you would like India to emulate from china?
Maybe the main thing would be differentiator pattern. China really wants to have globally competitive world class institutions. What China has neglected is the bottom of the system. Lots of dropout. They have pretty horrible private institutions. India on the other hand is characterized by some pinnacles of excellence in a sea of mediocrity. There are some really fine colleges which have kept good standard inspite of all the odds. There are some specialized institutions like (TIFR) and many others like that. But it is such a small part of the total.

Could you explain the differentiator pattern?
All universities including top ones should have focus not only on teaching and research but also service. They should have a kind of dual mission. But most universities should be mainly focussed on teaching, pedagogy and providing top quality education. Most teachers in colleges should be really good teachers and not researchers.This is not what they are paid to do. That is also the case in US and many other countries. There are many universities which produce almost no research but they do a good job of teaching.

From policy angle, how can India encourage not for profit institutions?
I do not have a clear answer to that but I am pleasantly surprised that in India also big houses are running education institutes as part of their corporate social responsibility. For instance the Azim Premji Institution. In the US, we have an institutional culture which supports that. When you contribute for education, you get a big benefit on your taxes, in fact you do not pay taxes and your burden gets reduced. We have done this for many generations to encourage people for philanthropy. We have a long tradition of private philanthropy. It is coming here, but it is not deeply ingrained in the society.

So what do you think private universities in India fundamentally lack?
My impression is that they are trying to be in education to make money. To me, that is not a good reason to be in education. The private sector in US is largely not for profit. I am very supportive of that. They are either funded by foundation, student fee and business enterprises which are in it for public service. I think that is in the minority here. India has traditionally under invested in education at all levels since independence. It needs to spend more on school and higher education now. India needs to recognize that it is now a sophisticated and important and rapidly growing economy. There are sophisticated industries here now and in some ways more sophisticated than China. That needs educational infrastructure to support for training people. Most graduates in Indian universities are unemployable. They need to have additional in service training by the companies to hire them.This is too bad and an indication of the low quality of the education system.

But Indian students from IITs and IIMs consider themselves among the best brains in the world...
To get into the IITs and IIMs, the exams Indian students take are probably the most competitive examinations in the world and a fraction of the ones who take the examination, make the cut. It is very selective, indeed. Infact, it is similar in China. But for these very people, there second choice is Harvard. These are exceedingly smart people. I do not know what is the value added by the IIT education as they are already so smart. Another interesting thing is I read a lot about China in the Indian press. But in China, nobody is interested in India. Everybody is obsessed with the United States. Chinese look more obsessively at American experience when building their higher education.

Indian universities do not figure in top 50 or 100 institutions in the world. How do you view that?
They are universities. If we put all IITs together, it is probably less than a large US university. However, it does matter. There are plenty of problems with the methodology and so on. But nonetheless they are proxy for quality and how rest of the world views them.

...But Indian institutions say the ranking criteria may not apply to them.
Well these are global criterions. They are too narrow for the developing countries, yes. Even Chinese are obsessed with the rankings. They are too much concerned about bench marking themselves against global standards. Nonetheless, we are in higher education which is a global phenomena.This is a competitive world and they do mean something. I think India pays too little attention to them and Chinese pay too much attention to them.

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