It has now become a globally accepted observation that a new world order is likely to evolve in post COVID-19 era.  Naturally, it is high time for us to get engaged in implementation of appropriate reforms to build globally competitive and self-reliant India.  It is also imperative that our education system needs to be reformed in a big way to make it happen.  This article concentrates on one important dimension of our higher education system which needs immediate attention in this context.

The manner in which our educational Institutes in general have been able to leverage the capabilities of digital infrastructure for providing on-line delivery of contents during lock-down period has been commendable.  At the same time, this has also opened up the risk of widening the digital divide in our society much further – an issue needing serious attention for societal equity.

Traditionally, many of our alumni have been doing exceedingly well for many decades across the world in premier academic institutions and industries.  It is estimated that at least 10% + members of research staffs in many great international organizations known for creativity and innovation – e.g. Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon, IBM, Facebook and so on – happen to be the alumni of our education system.  For quick reference, a small snapshot from the long list of our distinguished alumni is represented below –

Some Distinguished Alumni of Indian Education System based Abroad

Sl No Name Present Affiliation & Honours First degree
1 Abhijit Binayak Bandyopadhyay MIT,Nobel Prize in Economics Economics, University of Calcutta
2 Ajaypal Singh Banga CEO, Mastercard Economics, Delhi University
3 Amartya Sen Harvard University, Nobel Prize in Economics Economics, University of Calcutta
4 Arvind Krishna CEO, IBM Electrical Engineering, IIT Kanpur
5 Gita Gopinath Chief Economist, IMF Economics, University of Delhi
6 Indra Nooyi Former CEO, Pepsico Science, University of Madras
7 K R Subbaswamy Chancellor, University of Massachusetts Amherst. Physics, Bangalore University
8 Pradeep Khoshla Chancellor, University of California, San Diego Electrical Engineering, IIT Kharagpur
9 Rajeev Suri CEO, Nokia Electronics & Communication Engineering, Manipal Institute of Technology
10 Renu Khator Chancellor, University of Houston Systems & President, University of Houston Liberal Arts, Kanpur University
11 Satya Nadella CEO, Microsoft Electrical Engineering, Manipal Institute of Technology
12 Shantanu Narayen CEO, Adobe Electronics & Communication Engineering, Osmania University
13 Subra Suresh Former President, Carnegie Mellon University Mechanical Engineering, IIT Madras
14 Sundar Pichai CEO, Google, Alphabet Metallurgical Engineering, IIT Kharagpur
15 V Ramakrishnan Cambridge University, Nobel Prize in Chemistry Physics, Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda

It seems that we have reasons to be happy.  Of course, we have the platform to dream big, think positive and act with confidence.  However, we have to critically assess our present situation in global context, make serious introspection with open mind and then set our vision for reforms in higher education system accordingly.  Subsequent sections of this article present comprehensive analysis in this perspective.  To start with, in our endeavour to assess the present status, here is the list of Top-25 Institutes in overall category in our country – as listed in NIFR-2020, announced by our Honourable Minister of Huma Resources Development on June 11, 2020.  Corresponding ranks of these Institutes in the list of global ranking as announced by QS-2021 on June 10, 2020 are also included for objective comparison. 

Table 1: List of top 25 Indian Institutions in NIRF 2020 Ranking along with their QS 2021 Ranks

NIRF Rank* Institute QS Rank** UG (3/4/5 years) students %
1 Indian Institute of Technology Madras 275 43.4
2 Indian Institute of Science Bengaluru 185 10.5
3 Indian Institute of Technology Delhi 193 43.6
4 Indian Institute of Technology Bombay 172 41.5
5 Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur 314 54.2
6 Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur 350 49.2
7 Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati 470 44.8
8 Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi 13.3
9 Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee 383 44.9
10 Banaras Hindu University Varanasi 801-1000 53.7
11 Calcutta University Kolkata 801-1000 15.3
12 Jadavpur University Kolkata 651-700 56.2
13 Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham Coimbatore 801-1000 69.7
14 Manipal Academy of Higher Education Manipal 751-800 76.7
15 University of Hyderabad 651-700 No UG
16 Jamia Millia Islamia New Delhi 751-800 55.9
17 Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad 601-650 43.0
18 University of Delhi 501-510 5.0
19 Savitribai Phule Pune University 651-700 1.9
20 Anna University Chennai 801-1000 65.0
21 Bharathiar University Coimbatore 10.5
22 Indian Institute of Technology (Indian School of Mines) Dhanbad 46.1
23 Indian Institute of Technology Indore 59.9
24 National Institute of Technology Tiruchirappalli 56.4
25 Indian Institute of Science Education & Research Pune 65.3

* NIRF 2020 Ranking (Published on June 11, 2020)

** QS World University Rankings 2021 (Published on June 10, 2020)

For completeness of data to facilitate objective analytics, here is the list of Top 25 Institutes in the world – as per QS-2021 ranks.  Information about two more attributes contribution to Noble Prize and Olympic Medals are also added with Top 10 Institutes

Table 2: List of top 25 Institutions in QS 2021 Ranking

QS Rank Institute Country UG students % Nobel Prize Olympic
1 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) United States 33.8 97 12
2 Stanford University United States 42.7 83 280
3 Harvard University United States 30.5 160 108
4 California Institute of Technology (Caltech) United States 41.9 74 4
5 University of Oxford United Kingdom 50.2 72 168
6 ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Switzerland 44.5 32 NA
7 University of Cambridge United Kingdom 53.1 120 189
8 Imperial College London United Kingdom 52.2 14 NA
9 University of Chicago United States 38.2 100 8
10 UCL United Kingdom 48.6 33 NA
11 National University of Singapore (NUS) Singapore
12 Princeton University United States
13 Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU) Singapore
14 EPFL Switzerland
15 Tsinghua University China (Mainland)
16 University of Pennsylvania United States
17 Yale University United States
18 Cornell University United States
19 Columbia University United States
20 The University of Edinburgh United Kingdom
21 University of Michigan-Ann Arbor United States
22 The University of Hong Kong Hong Kong
23 Peking University China
24 The University of Tokyo Japan
25 Johns Hopkins University United State

Let us now list some of the observations, based on the information in Table-1 and Table-2:

  1. Highest global ranking from Indian Institutes happens to be 172.  List of Top-100 Institutes in QS-2021 ranks include 27 from USA, 18 from UK, 7 from Australia, 6 each from China and South Korea, 5 each from Hong Kong and Japan – and so on.
  2. Every Institute within Top-25 Global Rank has multi-faculty academic set up – involving Science, Technology and Social Science.  In most of the cases, they have Medical Faculty, Law Faculty and some other faculty as well.  In fact, within Top-50, global Institutes, London School of Economics happens to be the only one with speciality on one particular faculty – even though they also have a strong presence in Data Science as well.

On the contrary, the list of Top-25 Institutes in NIRF-2020 is densely populated with representatives from Technology domain – to the extent, 7 out of top 10 are Indian Institutes of Technology.  Even other 3 Institutes also do not have proportionate emphasis on multi-faculty academic structure.

The list of distinguished alumni however spans over various disciplines and various types of Institutes of our country.

This basic disconnect in academic structure between Top Institutes of our country vis-à-vis Top Global Institutes happens to be a huge impediment in developing global competitiveness of our Institutes.

  • Globally great Institutes concentrates substantially on extra-curricular activities and personality development together with the primary focus of academic development.  Data in the columns of Nobel Prize winners and Olympic medal winner substantiates this hypothesis.
  • Percentage of undergraduate students is very low in some of our Top Institutes.  For universities like University of Calcutta which has a large number of affiliated colleges, this phenomenon is appreciable.  But, for Institutes like Indian Institute of Science and Jawaharlal Nehru University, this seems to be incomprehensible – more so because of the fact these are public funded institutions and we have a huge population of students coming out of school system every year aspiring for quality higher education.
  • No of undergraduates amounting to 40%-50% of total student population in Top global Institutes does not affect in any way, the performance of the corresponding Institutes in the domains of teaching, research, innovation and overall personality development.
  • Percentage of undergraduate students is much higher in private Institutes as compared with their counterparts in public sector.
  • Presence of around 40%-50% of students in UG programs of IITs indicates that around 50%-60% of students there are engaged in postgraduate/research. This seems to be good in pursuit of research.  However, there is a caveat as well.  International brand equity of IIT system is essentially for its B.Tech. programs – and the process of entry to these programs through extremely competitive exclusive admission test is perceived to play a major catalytic role in taking the quality of B.Tech. programs to such a high level. However, it is generally observed that very few pass outs of B.Tech. programs of old established IITs join the postgraduate/research programs in this system.  This will naturally raise some uncomfortable questions about the sustenance of the quality of B.Tech. level in IIT system to M.Tech./PhD level as well.
  • Only about 15% of students coming out of school system joins undergraduate programs in Engineering / Technology.  Thus, around 85% of such students have relatively little scope to join Institutes which are good enough to find a place in list of Top-25 Institutes of our country.
  • It seems that some well performing Institutes like Indian Statistical Institute, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research etc. which are outside the administrative control of MHRD, have been left out of the purview of NIRF-2020.
  • It has been noted that the list of Top-50 Institutes in NIRF-2020 consists of 13 IITs, 8 Central Universities/Institutes, 14 State Universities/Institutes, 8 NITs/IISERs and 7 Private Institutes.  This observation leads to following observations:
    • Since now we have 20+ IITs, some of them are obviously not within Top 50.  Such non-uniformity of performance is observed in case of every family – NITs, IIESRs, Universities and so on.  This is perfectly normal – and it happens all over the world.  But, it is extremely difficult to defend the practice of putting all members of a family within one basket and then framing up policies on academic administration and fund allocation exclusively on the basis of specific baskets – without any consideration of relative performances across the entire spectrum of Institutes.
    • State Universities/Institutes have been doing reasonably well irrespective of the constraints they generally face, in getting appropriate financial support.
  • Private Institutes which are generally perceived to have focus on their UG programs only, also deserve serious attention for contribution to research and innovation.
  • Only very few Institutes like Jadavpur University have equally strong faculties of Science, Technology and Social Science – in tune with the practice followed in Top global Institutes.

Let us now try to understand the genesis of evolution of such disconnect in academic structure of our Top Institutes vis-à-vis Top global Institutes – from the perspective of interdisciplinarity –

At the time of Independence, our country had inherited a set of reasonably established Universities – at least some of which had been performing quite well.  Immediately after independence, it was decided to emphasize on the education of Engineering and Technology.  Accordingly, IIT Kharagpur was established in 1951 and four more IITs (Chennai, Mumbai, Kanpur and Delhi) had been added within next 10 years.  Similarly, 8 Regional Engineering Colleges (RECs) had been established during 1959-61 – and six more RECs added during mid ‘60s.  Simultaneously, major emphasis had been laid on building modern infrastructure across the country through establishment of several large public sector undertakings (PSU) – together with the focus on defence sector and later on, on space research.  A snapshot from the long list of Institutes established during the evolutionary phase in post-independent era is listed below –

Table 3: List of Industries and Research Organizations set up after Independence (snapshot)

Sl No. Name Headquarter Founded
1 Central Glass and Ceramic Research Institute Kolkata 1946-47
2 Central Institute of Mining and Fuel Research Dhanbad 1946-47
3 National Metallurgical Laboratory Jamshedpur 1946-47
4 National Chemical Laboratory Pune 1947
5 National Physical Laboratory New Delhi 1947
6 Physical Research Laboratory Ahmedabad 1947
7 Damodar Valley Corporation Kolkata 1948
8 Indian Telephone Industries Limited Bengaluru 1949
9 HMT Bengaluru 1953
10 Bharat Electronics Limited Bengaluru 1954
11 Steel Authority of India New Delhi 1954
12 Bhaba Atomic Research Centre Mumbai 1954
13 Defence Metallurgical Research Laboratory Hyderabad 1956
14 Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Dehradun 1956
15 Indian Oil Corporation New Delhi 1959
16 Defence Research & Development Laboratory Hyderabad 1961
17 Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station Thiruvananthapuram 1963
18 Bharat Heavy Electricals New Delhi 1964

IITs had been mandated essentially for contribution to creation of knowledge in Engineering/Technology and to produce world-class engineers – whereas primary mandate of RECs had been to develop qualified engineers to feed and maintain such newly created organizations.  Locations for IITs and RECs had also been chosen accordingly – for example, places like Chennai, Delhi, Mumbai had been chosen for IITs and places like Rourkela, Durgapur, Trichy, Nagpur had been chosen for RECs.  IITs had been kept under administrative control of Central Government and RECs had been administratively governed by respective State Government.  Each REC had been mandated to have 50% seats reserved for home states and also representation of students from all over the country had been ensured in each REC.

These RECs, together with already existing university system, had played immense role in rebuilding our country after independence.  On the contrary, Brand IIT had evolved stronger and stronger in the international platform – but, primarily for its B.Tech. programs.

Except for IIT Kanpur (and some other IITs in lesser extent) which had strong focus on basic science, IITs and RECs kept on focussing on the study of engineering and technology only. Hardly any of these Institutes had any emphasis on humanities and social science at all.  On the other hand, Universities generally refrained from building strong faculty of engineering  and/or technology. 

Subsequently, many more IITs had been created, RECs had been converted to NITs, brought under exclusive administrative control of MHRD and many more NITs added to the list -Universities have grown in number and an explosion in number of private Engineering Institutes/Colleges have been observed – but, the basic philosophy of separating engineering/technology from other faculties is being followed even today.  Naturally, in today’s era which is clearly governed by the convergence of physical science, life science, social science and computing science with technology as the driving force, we are now in this situation of structural disconnect of our higher education system from what world demands today.

Our students are inherently strong in creativity and innovation.  Society and industries expect the graduates to learn problem solving skills and clearly understand the situation where they are supposed to work and deliver.  Absence of adequate strength in basic sciences is likely to make the students less competent in getting adapted to fast changing technology – and, without appropriate and adequate knowledge of social science it is extremely difficult for them to appreciate the depth, nature and context of the problem they are expected to solve.

Thus, it is not at all unexpected when premier industrial bodies like CII and FICCI observe that a large percentage of our graduates are not employable.  Some shortcomings in technology skills can be addressed through short term training program – but, fundamental facets of social science and basic science have to be embedded within the personality of an individual and such limitation  cannot be rectified through any short term program.

However, it may be noted in this context that our industries also have to go a long way in terms of global competitiveness.  In the latest FORBEs-100 list, we have only one company (Reliance Industries at Rank 58) within Top 100 global rank – whereas USA has 37, China 18 (including Rank #1), Japan 8, Germany 5, France, Canada and Switzerland 4 each and so on. Even in the field of digital industries we are usually proud of, we have only two companies in the list of Top-100 global digital companies – TCS at Rank 38 and Infosys at Rank 71.

Top global companies invest very heavily in innovation and research – resulting in the evolution of many industry-supported research laboratories which today are rated higher than even the best academic Institutes of the world.  Research Laboratories of Microsoft, IBM, Google, Apple are several such instances.  Our industries have miles to go in this perspective.

Large network of skill based academic environments like Polytechnics, Vocational programs etc. generally remain outside the discussions of broad-spectrum policy framing.  Schemes like Make-in-India and Skill-development have huge potential to play in the endeavour to build self-reliant India – and here is an untapped domain with immense potential to contribute.

So, what is the way forward –

Some IITs seem to have understood the limitations arising out of the weakness in interdisciplinary studies.  Schools on medical sciences and management studies have been established in several places.  However, it takes at least several decades for any academic program to rise to the level of eminence.  Obviously, we do not have that amount of time – and financial implications also deserves serious consideration.  Promoting academic structure based on Interdisciplinary and Interinstitutional approaches emerges out as the best strategy, under the present circumstances, to steer our higher education system along the path followed by top global Institutes.  As an example, it make more sense for IIT Delhi to collaborate with AIIMs, New Delhi than building a medical faculty in IIT Delhi and a technology faculty in AIIMS, New Delhi.

As an anecdote, at a time when Shri Sundar Pichai, B.Tech. in Metallurgical Engineering from IIT Kharagpur can be selected to lead a global giant in IT sector like Google, the practice of mandatorily asking for a PhD exclusively in Computer Science & Engineering to be a faculty member in the Department of Computer Science & Engineering, needs a relook.  Similarly, the present Recruitment Rules (RR) for NIT system discouraging interdisciplinary and inter-institutional research needs an immediate revisit and appropriate amendment so that they can effectively contribute towards development of new India.  The guidelines issued by MHRD in 2015 for engaging experts from Industries in academia right from undergraduate to PhD level may serve as reference in this context.

Domain specific conglomerates of institutes across Universities, IITs, NITs and also involving polytechnics (if focus is on skill) may be set up to engage in studies of real-life societal and industrial problems.  Strength and suitability have to be the only criterion for selection of an Institute for inclusion in this conglomerate.

To conclude, we do have the heritage, we do have the strength and we do have the passion.  There is every reason for us to be hopeful.  Only requirement – we have to dream big, think positive, set appropriate vision and act with conviction – with open mind and readiness for serious self-introspection and commitment to make hard reforms – with the only objective to make our beloved country globally competitive and self-reliant.


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