Ravi Kumar Pillai
Ravi Kumar Pillai

Creating Home-grown Nobel Laureates

Ravi Kumar Pillai

Indian intelligentsia is yet to get over the ecstasy on the news of Abhijit Banerjee winning the Nobel Prize for Economics. Every time a Thought Leader of Indian origin wins global acclaim, the nation erupts in spontaneous appreciation. Rightly so. However, as the enthusiasm settles down, the nagging question re-emerges as to whether the next Nobel to an Indian, as and when that happens, would also go to a scholar who emigrated to a more supportive academic environment. Why is it that our very own IITs, IISc, National Research Institutions or Centres of Development Studies have not produced a single home-grown Nobel laureate?

Graduate studies and research in our institutions of higher learning have remained subdued and very often caught in mediocrity. Like many teachers taking their engagements as jobs and not passion, a large chunk of scholars take up research more as a label to get employment rather than in pursuit of academic excellence.

As the newly independent India emerged from the traumatic partition, higher education became just one of the pieces of the reconstruction puzzle. Yet, within constraints, the first Prime Minister of free India, Jawaharlal Nehru had the sagacity to dream big and push for establishing IITs and National Research Institutions.

However, with the mushrooming of Universities and politicization of their administration, over the years, there was a steady marginalization of the role of academicians in strategizing and managing higher education. It is my considered view that keeping higher education in the Concurrent list of the Constitution and leaving its growth predominantly to the resource-constrained State Governments stunted the evolution of a dynamic academic ecosystem in India.

As of July 2019, we have over 900 Universities in India of which nearly two-thirds are in Government Sector– 400 in the States and 200 in the Central Sector. The massive number of institutions makes India the third largest ecosystem for university education in the world. However, quantity at the expense of quality has hardly helped India to emerge as an academic power worth taking note of in the global arena.

Against global benchmarking, our higher education institutions fare rather dismally. In the Times Global Ranking of Higher Education Institutions (2018), only two from India figure among the top 500 - Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore and IIT, Bombay. Both are in the range of 400-500 ranks. As against this, there are 12 Institutions from China in the top 500 and two-University of Beijing and Tsinghua University- figure in the top 50.

Looking at some of the key parameters of global academic ranking, we just cannot ignore the alarming deficiencies in our higher education scenario. The top 5 Universities globally have an average student-teacher ratio of 9:1; there are 30% foreign students in their academic community and the female to male students’ ratio is 40:60. India has an average of 30 students per teacher at University level. The Gross Enrolment Ratio for girl students is 29%, meaning less than a third of the girls in the relevant age group are attending university education. As for foreign students, we have a paltry 5% representation in our Universities, two-thirds of it coming from South Asia, Central Asia/Middle East and Africa. When we consider post-graduate and research studies, the share of foreign students is minuscule.

More than anything else, the quality of academic programs, their contemporariness and alignment with emerging domains of knowledge, global reputation of the faculty, opportunity and attractiveness to stay back for work or research as well as the richness of the peer group are key factors that influence foreign students to choose a global destination. India does not catch the attention of the global student community yet.

The Indian higher education scenario is massive, but it lacks strategic depth. Nations at the forefront of higher education ensure autonomy to their Universities and Research Institutions. Governmental facilitation in sync with academic infrastructure nurtures a learning culture with thrust on innovation and research. Intellectual capital is the strategic differentiator in the competitiveness of nations and their economies in today’s knowledge economy.

The quality of public universities in a world class academic ecosystem is consistently high. For example, Governments continue to be the main source of higher education funding, accounting for two-thirds of the expenditure across Organization for Economic Cooperation (OECD) member nations. The widespread provision of grants, scholarships and educational loans on easy terms have helped to make higher education more accessible and affordable in these countries. In many OECD countries, the average government expenditure exceeds the average annual household expenditure on education per student. The core belief of knowledge-driven societies is that the Government should facilitate the build-up of competence, competitiveness, strategic alignment and governance quality of higher education.

It is time for India to implement a focused program to build academic centres of excellence at par with the best in the world. A holistic strategy, structure and governance framework should guide this exercise which should be ideally driven by the highest policy making level. The way Singapore, China and some of the Scandinavian countries have pursued building their higher education infrastructure is worth emulating.

We need to segment higher education into two categories and devise strategies which are complementary yet targeted to ensure growth of both segments. There can be no two opinions that the public universities need to undergo transformational makeover in terms of quality of infrastructure, teaching faculty competence, quality standards and governance practices. Additionally, we need to create a strategic segment in higher education comprising a select number of distinguished centres of excellence to attract, nurture and mentor the high potential talent from India and abroad.

Creation of a bunch of truly world class educational institutions in a range of faculties would give an impetus to academic research, patents, publications and through leadership. With the zeal with which the first five IITs were set up, we need to create the new generation National Institutes in key faculties beyond Technology and Medicine.

Liberal Arts and Economics need to gain more focus. In the past decade, a few private universities have come up in India offering world class liberal arts education and research. This is a welcome development and fills a long-felt gap in our higher education scenario. This is just the beginning and more needs to be done to broad base and enhance higher education in liberal arts. Liberal Arts education with an interdisciplinary curriculum covering a wide range of cognitive and behavioral domains rekindles intellectual curiosity, broadens perspectives, reinforces logical thought and provides strategic depth to academic pursuit. In creating the foundation for lifelong learning and nurturing global vision, liberal arts education plays a critical part. The new Private Universities focusing on Liberal Arts are attempting to renew and reposition the spirit behind setting up of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) - which was intended to be the Nation’s premier centre of liberal studies - to a smaller, intensely focused, agile and strategic format.

The time has come to ring fence Academic Institutions of National Importance from political or bureaucratic overhang. We should institutionalize statutory protection of the autonomy of our strategic academic institutions. The idea of creating a National Council of Higher Education (NCHE) with constitutional guarantee of autonomy should be considered. The recent proliferation and diluting of the brands like IIT, AIIMS and IIM has in fact done a disservice to the crying need to develop elite educational institutions that can nourish thought leadership. We should develop a select band of Strategic Academic Institutions of National Importance. They should be brought within the ambit of an autonomous NCHE. The Governing Body and Leadership of the Council should be insulated from routine political interference. The goal of these institutions should be to produce global thought leadership in the respective domain of knowledge.

In order to create world class academic institutions, we should be able to attract a slice of the best international students and faculty. The proportion of international students in the total enrolment tends to be significant at the leading centres of tertiary education across the globe. Within OECD countries, for example, 27% of students enrolled in doctoral or equivalent programmes and 12% of those enrolled in master’s or equivalent programmes are international students.

It is not a coincidence that Universities in the US and UK have produced the highest number of Nobel Laureates. Out of the 10 Universities which have produced the highest number of Nobel Laureates, 7 are from the US, 2 from UK and one from France. In the list of the top 50 Universities with the largest number of Nobel Laureates, there is none outside US, UK or Europe. China, Japan and South Korea are way ahead of India in their determined pursuit to upgrade higher education to global best-in-class level.

In the leading countries which have created sustainable learning culture, higher education has clearly two segments, each receiving strategic attention from the Government. The first layer is the undergraduate and graduate level institutions – predominantly in the public sector, with liberal funding from the exchequer but with academic and administrative autonomy. These are the nurseries of talent and the pathway to the next level.

Then there are a few elite academic schools that are created to attract and empower world-class students to pursue pathbreaking studies and research. Their compactness, focus and autonomy set them apart and enable them to excel in their domains of knowledge.

A recent study identified two such outstanding schools which dominate the global ranking: on the creation of Nobel Laureates. They are École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in France and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in the US. These small, elite institutions admit very few students per year, through a tough selection process after intense scrutiny of credentials and potential; their per capita production of Nobel winners outstrips large world-class universities many times over. Interestingly, many of the top Nobel-producing academic centres are privately run, structurally endowed with agility and openness and have significant financial resources contributed by philanthropists, alumni and earnings from research and publications.

India needs to address the issues that plague its higher education sector holistically. A three-pronged strategy needs to be implemented on a mission mode. Firstly, across-the-board improvement in the infrastructure, curriculum and learning quality of public education should be focused. Secondly, we need to create an elite, research focused group of strategic institutions of national importance within public and private sectors. Thirdly, we need to broad-base and globalize higher education by attracting, foreign institutions, faculty and students. A resurgent and ambitious nation has no place for ostrich-like policy making.

*Ravi Kumar Pillai is CEO and Principal Consultant of Cherrypick India Consulting and Business Solutions Private Limited, Trivandrum. He can be contacted at