In pursuit of excellence

Published : Apr 07, 2006 00:00 IST



The quality of higher education is determined by factors such as academicfreedom and physical facilities and not by salary differentials.

IN discussions on higher education, the pursuit of excellence is one persistent theme that now recurs with greater frequency. Of course this is not entirely new; from the early 1950s, when the elite of independent India was filled with a new self-confidence, there has been an attempt within the public domain to create institutions of excellence in higher education.

But there is a difference in how this feature is perceived today, which may derive from a slightly different orientation, whereby excellence is not defined in its own terms but more in terms of how we think others (especially in the West) see us. It is commonplace to find, in popular magazines and newspapers, articles that cite listings of "top 100" or "top 300" universities in the world, and bemoan that Indian institutions are not to be found among them. It is equally common for otherwise well-informed people to assume that only institutions that are currently receiving a lot of publicity in the developed world, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), are "world class" and even the best among the rest are just also-rans.

There can be no doubt that much of the higher education system is in severe stress in India, to the point of crisis and non-functionality in many institutions. Quite apart from the sheer shortage of adequate facilities, there are real problems of poor quality, inadequate monitoring and accountability, inbreeding and feudal practices in many institutions. Certainly many bright students get short-changed by a system that does not provide stimulating pedagogy or useful skills to many.

There are many factors behind this, and revamping the higher education system is therefore clearly a priority, even though it is a daunting and complex task. But from this we should not jump to the conclusion that higher education in India is no more than a sea of mediocrity at best and that we have no choice but to look outside India for examples of excellence.

In fact, India already has a number of world class institutions - not only the more obviously well-known ones such as the IITs and IIMs but places like the Indian Institute of Science and the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore and the Vellore Medical College, to take just a few examples. In general, despite all the weaknesses in our undergraduate education, Indian students appear to do rather well when they go abroad, and this is also true for research. They are often preferred in international institutions because of certain skills that are imparted often imperceptibly in our system, including the by no means irrelevant ability to be flexible in the face of impediments.

Even within institutions that are less widely acknowledged internationally, there are departments and individual faculty members of undoubted high quality, who manage to produce equally good students and also excellent research output despite constraints. And there are pockets of excellence in many non-metro areas, which indicate the possibility of thriving even in what is apparently inhospitable soil.

So should we not identify our strengths, rather than be obsessed with failure? This would mean directing our attention to the factors that have contributed to creating and maintaining such pockets of excellence, and considering how we could replicate these features elsewhere.

We cannot really hope to expand the list of "world class" institutions, if we simply ape what is happening elsewhere, for example in the U.S., without exploring the factors that have been responsible for creating and maintaining excellence in our own specific contexts. This is important because one frequently heard argument is that it is necessary to accept and even acknowledge pay differentials and other hierarchies - across and within academic institutions - in order to allow the best to flourish.

One corollary of such an argument is that increasing salary differentials across the teaching profession is a necessary condition to attract the best into academic faculties. This would replicate the pattern in the U.S., where there are differences in salary structure not only across institutions, but even within institutions across faculties and within faculties. In this system, individual professors can negotiate their own salaries and perks.

It is argued that this is necessary to ensure that faculties that are unable to hire people because of higher market earnings in their profession should be able to offer higher salaries than faculties where no such competitive pressure exists, and that the best can be attracted in all disciplines with the offer of more attractive salary packages than their colleagues. This would mean, for example, that professionals such as dentists, doctors and lawyers, or those engaged in the nebulous "discipline" called management, would command higher salaries than those engaged in less marketable activities such as basic science research or philosophy or history.

But in many ways, such a system would militate against all the features that make universities special places in society in the first place. Recognition of such "hierarchies" is problematic not only because it is inegalitarian and excessively market-driven; it can also have severe negative implications for collegiality, which is the basic principle underlying the effective functioning of faculty in higher education. It will also operate to reduce both the attractiveness of higher studies and the status of faculty involved in less "marketable" areas.

Besides being unfortunate in itself, this would be adverse for the health of a university and the promotion of liberal arts education in general. Further, it would create incentives for the young that would rely too much on current market forces and not take into account the current and longer term requirements of society in general.

In any case, it is not at all clear that creating such differentials would be either necessary or sufficient for ensuring excellence. It is worth noting that in most of the best universities outside the U.S., whether in Europe or Canada or East Asia, differential salary structures are unusual and exceptional, and more egalitarian tendencies drive the system.

Ultimately, of course, academic status should be based more on peer recognition and the appreciation of students and wider society; while decent salaries and physical working conditions are of course necessary, differential salaries cannot be the driving force to ensure quality.

Indeed it is the case that in most of the places of excellence that currently exist in India, salaries have not been the most critical factor determining the quality or success of the faculty. Many eminent and internationally recognised scholars working in India would strongly contest the argument that salary differentials are necessary to encourage "the best" to come and teach in universities in India. Instead, they tend to emphasise the importance of academic and other freedoms, social dignity, physical facilities, and so on.

It is interesting to note, in this context, that many recently created private institutions continue to face difficulty in attracting good faculty despite offering significantly higher salaries. So clearly, there are some other factors which are important, and it would be necessary to consider all of these before jumping to the conclusion that allowing increased differentials in pay would ensure better quality of academic output.

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