Science, Technology
& Innovation

India: World-Class Universities?

hesb-02-09-india-featured image

Not long ago, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee declared, “If we provide enough funds to 10 to 15 top institutions for the next four to five years, these institutions will certainly storm into the top 100 of global academic rankings within the next few years.” Late in 2016, the Ministry of Human Resource Development issued a series of draft guidelines and regulations to create 20 world-class universities (WCUs) – 10 public and 10 private. Unfortunately, this laudable goal will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in the short or medium run. Why?



India’s higher education and research sectors have for decades been generally underfunded, especially in view of the tremendous growth in numbers of students. Compared to the other BRIC countries, the percentage spent on education, 4.1% of GDP, is second to Brazil. But in terms of research expenditures, India is at the bottom, with only 0.8% of GDP. And India educates the lowest percent of the relevant age group at the postsecondary level among the BRICs. Although India now has the second largest higher education system in the world, following China, the pressures for expansion to meet both public demand and the government’s own targets are immense.


The higher education system is poorly organised to create WCUs. None of India’s state governments seems to have an ambitious vision for the development of world-class institutions at the state level, and none provides funding for higher education that is adequate to main high standards of quality. The central universities are better funded and most do not have the immense, and globally unique, responsibility for supervising India’s 39,000 colleges that the state universities have.


In the past, when India wanted to create new and innovative higher education institutions, entirely new schools were started – such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the Indian Institutes of Management, and a few others. Indian planners did not want to grapple with the seemingly insurmountable governance problems of the existing universities. Indian regulations stipulate that eligible universities should have around 15,000 students, or to achieve that number within 15 years. It is unclear if the guidelines would disqualify the IITs – arguably the only Indian institutions with the spirit and governance that might permit rapid advancement.


Further, it is stipulated that of the total 20 universities to be selected, ten will be private. It would be difficult to find ten Indian private universities with potential for world-class standing, even with a massive infusion of resources. Three or four might qualify. Globally, except in the United States and Japan, there are very few top private universities. Creating WCUs requires careful thought, planning, and quite considerable funding over the long run. If recognition in the global rankings is a goal, the challenges are even greater because the rankings are a moving target and competition is fierce. For example, the Russian government is funding an initiative with the goal of five Russian universities entering the top 100 by 2020. More than US$200 million is being given each year to 21 top universities.


Japan recently started its Super Global Universities Project. China continues to spend heavily on its top universities, two of which have made it into the top 100 of the Shanghai rankings for the first time. India is very much a latecomer to the world-class party, and will not be spending enough to make dramatic headway. Funding was stipulated to be 500 crores of rupees (around $US75 million) for each of the 20 universities over a five-year period – or about 100 crores (about US$15 million) annually for each institution if funds are uniformly distributed.


More recent discussions seem to have reduced the allocations. The amounts are significant in the Indian context—but perhaps not sufficient to be truly transformative.



We analysed the experiences of ten new universities that have achieved considerable success in our book, The Road to Academic Excellence: The Making of World-Class Research Universities (World Bank, 2011). We found that all share some common characteristics. The following list provides necessary, but perhaps not sufficient, conditions for building successful top-level research universities.


Among the key ingredients necessary for creating a new research-intensive university are the following: adequate financial resources to get started and sustain excellence over time; a balanced governance model that includes significant participation from, but not total control by the academics; strong leadership, not only a visionary president, but a professionally competent administrative staff able to implement the university’s mission; autonomy from the interference of governmental or private authorities, but that allows for a reasonable degree of accountability to external agencies; academic freedom for teaching, research, and publication; top academic staff who are committed to the university’s mission (including teaching), and who are paid adequately and provided with appropriate career ladders; highly qualified and motivated students; and a firm commitment to meritocracy at all levels.


In our book, we also identified a number of “accelerating factors” that can play a positive role in the quest for excellence. The first factor consists in relying extensively on the diaspora when upgrading an existing university or establishing a new institution. As illustrated by the experiences of Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTEC) in South Korea and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), bringing large numbers of overseas scholars back to their country of origin is an effective way of rapidly building up the academic strength of an institution.


The second factor is to introduce significant curriculum and pedagogical innovations. HKUST, for example, was the first US-style university in Hong Kong, a feature that made it distinct from the existing institutions operating according to the British model. The Higher School of Economics in Moscow was among the first Russian institutions offering a modern curriculum that integrates teaching and research and establishing a supportive digital library. These kinds of innovative features – part of the “latecomer advantage – are of great consequence for new institutions that need to be attractive enough to entice students away from existing universities and get them to risk enrolling in an “unknown” programme.


The third factor consists in using benchmarking as a guiding methodology to orient the institution in its upgrading efforts. Shanghai Jiao Tong University, for instance, anchored its strategic planning work in careful comparisons with leading Chinese universities first, and then moved to include peer foreign universities in the benchmarking exercise. Concentrating on niche areas is another suitable manner of reaching a critical mass of top researchers more rapidly, as demonstrated by the examples of HKUST and POSTEC in Asia, or the Higher School of Economics in Russia. Many of the efforts to develop WCUs have emphasised science and technology as the exclusive focus.


These fields are certainly important, and they will bring dividends in the rankings because they produce many journal articles. Yet, the social sciences and humanities are increasingly relevant, and more recognised by citation counters that matter for rankings. The contemporary world needs focus on all aspects of knowledge to address our planet’s big challenges (climate change, energy, food, health, etc.).



India does not have a distinguished record of shielding universities from government involvement. Indeed, most observers have pointed out that many aspects of higher education, for instance the appointments of vice-chancellors and other senior officials, have been politicised. The proposed WCU guidelines indicate that no basic change in university governance will be possible. India’s “reservation system” of linking up half of student admissions and faculty appointments to particular disadvantaged population groups may work for educational institutions focused on teaching and have many positive results. But this will not permit the development of world-class research universities that seek to attract the most talented academics and students. Yet, the proposed guidelines indicate that the reservation system will remain fully in place.


India has certain advantages. The use of English as the medium of teaching and research in much of higher education puts India in the global scientific linguistic mainstream. India has no shortage of well-trained and brilliant researchers, both at home and working abroad. A truly exciting and well-planned academic development can attract the Indian diaspora – but only if appropriate academic conditions and flexible governance arrangements are in place and if salaries are at international levels.


Current realities and past efforts suggest that the road to WCUs in India may be extraordinarily difficult. Yet, with support from the country’s president and with thoughtful planning and much creative thinking, the goal of building several worldclass teaching and research universities in India may be achievable. However, the proposed levels of funding and guidelines for implementation make success highly unlikely.


This article was originally published in International Higher Education.


Philip G. Altbach is Research Professor and founding director of the Center for International Higher Education (CIHE) in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. He is also Editor of International Higher Education.


Jamil Salmi is a global tertiary education expert and former staff member of the World Bank.

JUNE 2017 | ISSUE 2

Higher Education in Asia: Regional Integration and Regional Patterns


Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications


Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

Join our mailing list

Stay updated on all the latest news and events

Join our mailing list

Stay updated on all the latest news and events