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the challenge of gaining world class university status

Friday 16 December, 2011

A Professor V.S. Prasad visited GITAM (where I teach) to discuss the Challenge of gaining world class university status.  There’s been a fair amount of discussion of this topic in the press lately.  For a country with the resources the size of India, 1 would think that India would have more universities recognized as world class.  Here’s how that could happen.

He 1st likened lecturing to continuous learning, then quoted Confucius stating, “When you aim high, you achieve the average.  If you aspire to no more than average, you land @ the bottom.  If you seek no more than the bottom, you end up with nothing.”  Philip Altbach says “India is a 21st century contradiction:  a world-class country without world-class education.”   Forbes lists 2 Indians in it’s list of the top 10 richest people on Earth, but none of the 1 or 2-ranked Indian schools listed in the world’s top 100 universities.  India does have the largest number of poor in the world.

Prasad broke his talk down into 3 areas:

  1. Why aspire to become a world-class university?
  2. What are the attributes of world-class universities?
  3. What are the pathways to become a world-class university?

1.  There are imperatives to develop knowledge, become globally economically competitive, create social transformation, & enhance learning.  There are 570 institutions of higher learning, 15M students, & 500K teachers in Andhra Pradesh.  But basing education on the profit motive is not the path to becoming a world-class university because the objective is profit & not fulfillment & achievement.  Universities should serve society for the common good.  There should also be a synergy between industry & the national interest.  There is also a relationship between knowledge creation, industry, & society which should lead to personal satisfaction which serves the public interest.

2.  Altbach says, “Everybody wants 1.  Nobody knows what it is or how to get 1.”  In 2009, the World Bank named complementary sets of factors to evaluate world-class universities:

  • concentrations of talent in terms of staff & students
  • resources in the learning environment & for advance research
  • governance-vision, flexibility, & the right economics

Many rankings exist, but how do we know when we’ve reached world-class status?  Malaysia fell out of the top 100.  There is the issue of teaching vs. a research focus, which implies a language factor, i.e. does only research in English count?  International student populations are ideally 18-25% of the student population.  International faculty should be 25-30%, but there are few in India.  Such universities should have:

  1. a clearly stated mission & values
  2. development of programs by its stakeholders
  3. infrastructure
  4. leadership idea centers
  5. quality systems for continuous improvement

3.  To become a world class university, schools should focus on all around development opportunities for all aspects of life with multidisciplinary faculty with no focus on any 1 area.  Their interfaces should enrich life.  The dynamic systems of universities should resolve contradictions & conflicts.  Universities help understand the universe & make human beings more humane.  External factors are the social context/the level of development; the role of government is to set a policy framework & provide funding to the student base through grants & loans; private initiatives.  Internal factors are leadership/vision; a strategic plan; a quality culture that is the defining element of all activities.

Caution:  Given a world-class university or the democratization of excellence, you need the latter to build the former.  To upgrade existing universities requires unlearning existing cultures & building anew.  Perhaps building new world-class universities works better.  Policies & the social context are interrelated.  There is another danger in that there are no results in the distortion of public resources-competition is required.

When the president of Harvard was asked what it would take to build a world class university 100 years ago, his reply was supposedly, “$500M (a princely sum then) & 200 years.”  It requires autonomy for the colleges-too much regulation leads to collective consciousness.  Universities need to be clear about their purpose.

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