India may be the only large country where universities conducting research are not clearly defined and supported by government or private entities. Out of India’s 900-odd universities, only a handful conduct good quality research and have their papers published in reputed international journals. The rest are largely teaching-focused universities doing little and probably mediocre research.
This situation in India is similar to many other countries — where only a fraction of the overall higher education institutes (HEIs) are research-intensive. For example, in the US, only about 10 per cent of the HEIs are considered research universities.
But unlike other countries, there is no system of classification or other ways to identify research universities in India that offer high quality higher education at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and which have a clear research mission as well. For India to join the ranks of countries that have top-quality research universities — producing and sharing sophisticated research and knowledge — the country needs to identify a small number of competitive research universities, and then support them so that they can achieve global standards.
If evidence were needed, then the recent releases of two of the main global rankings — the Times Higher Education Rankings and the QS Rankings — show that India has no university in the top 100. Without a mechanism to identify research universities and then support them appropriately, this situation is unlikely to change in India.
The Carnegie Classification
There are classification methods for separating research-oriented universities from the rest — the Carnegie Classification of the US is the best known. Significantly, the Carnegie Classification, first published in 1973, is not issued by the US government but by a foundation. It is widely accepted by the country’s government as well as the higher education community.
It is important to note that the Carnegie Classification is not a ranking but places all US HEIs in appropriate categories. An Indian version of this classification was recently proposed. It considers those HEIs as research universities that have at least 75 per cent of faculty members with a PhD and one or more full-time stipend-paid PhD student per faculty. The proposed classification found about 70 HEIs in India that can be considered as research universities.
Another challenge before India is that there is no voice to represent the interests of research universities. Other countries have independent organisations for this purpose. In the United States, the Association of American Universities, with 60 US and two Canadian universities, represents the interests of the top research universities. It is worth keeping in mind that the AAU speaks on behalf of only a small number of more than 2,000 universities in the US — so the research university sector is small but very important.
In the UK, the Russell Group (representing 24 of the total 130 universities), and in Australia the Group of Eight top universities (out of 43) play similar roles. These organisations are independent and select their own members. They are free of government control.
In India, from the research universities identified using a transparent classification method, some agreed-on metrics would need to be applied to select a small number of universities for such an organisation. The initial member universities can then redefine the metrics and procedures to select more members or terminate the membership of the existing ones that do not conform to the metrics.
So how many research universities does India need, keeping in mind that such institutions are expensive to set up and require continuous support? If other countries provide an accurate indication, then the number of research universities in India should be no more than 100, or perhaps even fewer.
To take China’s example, the two massive university improvement programmes — Projects 985 and 211, included only 151 universities out of around 3,000. Billions of dollars have been spent on upgrading these universities. While only a few of the top institutions have made impressive gains in the rankings, most others have seen significant improvement.
Save talent, build world-class universities
India faces significant challenges in establishing successful research universities. But if the country wants to play in the big leagues of science and 21st-century knowledge-led development, and retain its top talent, then it would need world-class research universities.
For this, India needs a method to identify its research universities. It will also need a highly reputed subset of these universities to form an initial independent association of research universities, which will provide inputs on how these research universities can thrive in India and channel some of their research prowess to address national challenges.
Philip G. Altbach is Research Professor and Founding Director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA. Views are personal.
Pankaj Jalote is Distinguished Professor and Founding Director of the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi. Views are personal.