Editorial Notes

[Editorial Notes] Temples of critical thinking and debate

To be among the best in the world, Indian universities must be freed from excessive interference and politicization.
By IASToppers
March 19, 2020


  • Introduction
  • Highlights of the Report
  • Global highlights
  • Factors behind success
  • Pluralistic centres
  • Talent attraction and retention
  • Critical Thinking
  • Financial wisdom
  • The example of China
  • Indian scenario
  • Way Forward
  • Conclusion 

Temples of critical thinking and debate

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In the recent subject-wise ranking of world universities by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), Indian institutions improved with 26 departments or schools placed in the top 100 of their respective disciplines. Science, technology and business studies were the fields in which our universities showed their mettle.

Highlights of the Report:

  • 26 departments of higher education institutions in India have been ranked among the top 100 education institutions in the world in the Global Subject Rankings.
  • According to last year’s report, the number stood at 21.
  • Incidentally, all 26 departments are in institutions run by the Union government — IITs, IIMs, IISc and Delhi University.
  • IIT Delhi has five programmes among the top 100 and IIT Kharagpur, IIT Madras, and IISc Bangalore have recorded three programmes each
  •  IIM Ahmedabad and IIM Bangalore are ranked in the 51-100 band for business and management studies.
  • While this is a reason to celebrate, not even a single Indian university features in the QS ranking of the world’s top 150 in overall parameters.
  • The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) of Bombay and Delhi are at the 152nd and 182nd places in the overall rankings, while IISc Bangalore appears at the 184th position.

Global highlights:

  • QS’s top 10 in overall terms include five American universities (MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Caltech and Chicago), four British universities (Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and Imperial College) and one Swiss university (ETH Zurich).

Factors behind success:

  • One common factor behind the success of the topmost universities is the freedom with which they operate.
  • They have been major centres of innovation in teaching and research, thanks to independence from bureaucratic or corporate meddling and political intervention by parties of the day.
  • They could remain centres of extraordinary excellence in a sustained way by according primacy to matters of the mind, i.e. intellectual ideas and solutions to problems, and avoiding becoming hostage to dogmatic thought.

Pluralistic centres:

  • All the great universities of the world are ideologically pluralistic, with a mix of right, left and centre among their faculty and students.
  • There is no institutional line or official position on any issue.
  • Professors and students are free to choose whatever opinion they prefer.
  • No one is penalized for holding a pro- or anti- view on social, economic, political, cultural or scientific matters.

Talent attraction and retention:

  • The top universities are also excellent at attracting and retaining talent.
  • They hire professors very selectively, based on outstanding scholarly abilities.
  • They reject a large number of candidates for admission as students, and admit only the brightest and the most meritorious.
  • This ruthless streak comes at the expense of social inclusion and access considerations, but some institutions must be allowed to generate knowledge as an end in itself so that they reach the summit of intellectual endeavor.
  • Top universities incentivize publication and citation of research in an unforgivingly rigorous way.
  • If an Assistant Professor does not produce brilliant publications in the most reputed journals of her field, she may lose her job and not get tenured as an Associate Professor.
  • By insisting on tough standards which are never lowered or relaxed, these universities promote a meritocratic culture as a habit.

Critical Thinking:

  • Big universities also inculcate critical thinking, debating and writing abilities in their students.
  • They encourage students to look at issues through interdisciplinary lenses and to challenge their own professors.
  • They award grades to students who are argumentative and who question conventional wisdom in the classroom and in assignments.
  • This type of interactive pedagogy produces champion graduates who have a reputation for cutting-edge skills and knowledge in the job market compared to peers from second- or third-tier universities.

Financial wisdom:

  • The world’s best universities are known for involving their own alumni in governance and reforms.
  • Top global universities are also super-smart financial managers.
  • Many of them, especially the U.S. universities, have sophisticated alumni offices through which they raise funding, which can exceed the revenue from student tuition fees.
  • By 2019, the total endowment of Harvard was worth $40 billion, which is made up of over 13,000 individual funds.
  • Harvard invests this money in a variety of financial instruments and generates phenomenal income from it.

The example of China:

  • Still, a muscular push from the government of China with massive state funding has propelled Chinese universities into the top tiers in barely two decades.
  • In the QS world rankings on overall basis, Tsinghua University is ranked number 16, Peking University is at 22, Fudan University is at 40, and Zhejiang University is at 54. This is a miraculous leap forward.

Indian scenario:

  • In India, as the government is cash-strapped and lacks the kind of resources which the Chinese state deployed to pump-prime Chinese universities, our only viable path to world class universities is in the form of enlightened private philanthropy and borrowing best practices from established iconic universities.

Way Forward:

  • Avoiding politicization, ideological rigidity and nepotism.
  • Freeing our universities from excessive interference and over-regulation.
  • Shed off insularity and self-congratulatory frog-in-the-well attitudes.
  • Taking serious note of inadequate training of students in theories, methodologies and laboratory setup.
  • The government’s decision to identify 20 Institutes of Eminence (IOEs) will get maximum autonomy from bureaucracy in order to climb up the world rankings is a step in the right direction.
  • The selected IOEs must innovate with new degree programmes.
  • Expand variety of faculty members and digital learning platforms.
  • Training of Teachers and induction of updated technology.
  • Need for fund infusion and investment in education.


India has miles to go in higher education. India’s requires evolutionary and cumulative change with long-term vision and selfless leadership to make our universities at par with the global institutions of merit.

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