The Innovation Universities of India

The innovation universities of India

Universities from Europe, the United States and Canada are beating a path to India hoping to collaborate with Indian higher education institutions.

Centres of research excellence to be set up across India as 'innovation universities' will have an international flavour and the autonomy to decide on curricula and appoint faculty, said Education Minister Kapil Sibal after consultations on a proposed innovation universities bill.

The 14 innovation universities to be set up by the education ministry will focus on various research areas. The ministry is hoping to attract world-class foreign collaboration.

"These universities will focus a lot on research and development and industry-academia collaboration. Besides the conventional streams of knowledge, research and development in emerging areas like global warming, food security, agriculture and community health will get prime focus," Apart from the 14 public universities to be set up under the bill, private players could set up more institutions within the prescribed framework.

The new universities will be allowed to admit half their students from abroad, teach foreign curricula and hire teachers and even vice-chancellors who are foreign nationals, according to a draft law circulated by the government.

"Every university of innovation shall provide an ambience of learning that has an international flavour," states the Universities for Innovation Bill 2010, though "not less than half" the students should be Indian nationals".

The universities will not come under the purview of the University Grants Commission, which regulates most universities in India. The UGC caps the enrolment of foreign nationals at 15%.

Instead they will be set up with private help and be self-regulated, with half their board members being independent experts of academic eminence. They will also be free to set up more than one campus, including outside India.

Some of the universities will be set up in collaboration with leading American and British universities. Yale University, for instance, is already in talks with the education ministry and wants to develop leadership programmes for the new universities.

Innovation universities will be allowed to teach both Indian and foreign curricula simultaneously, and issue degrees that need not comply with established Indian norms.

The bill allows each innovation university to frame its own policy to attract faculty members from India and abroad and hire them directly, offering wages and perks that it deems fit. Currently, the government clears all faculty appointments and decides the salary structure of teachers in government and government-aided institutions.

There was overwhelming support for more flexibility in appointing faculty members.

Innovation universities need foreign help

Decades after India sought foreign assistance to establish its first premier technical institutes - the Indian Institutes of Technology or IITs - it is again seeking guidance from the world's top institutions to set up 14 innovation universities.

The government wants mentors from leading universities in the US and UK. They include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, Yale and George Washington universities, and Imperial College, London.

The 14 innovation universities are to be centres of excellence along the lines of Harvard and Oxford. The government wants the universities to be autonomous entities with no 'regulation from outside'. At present, universities are governed by the University Grants Commission and have limited powers to fix fees or sanction teaching posts.

But a 'concept note', prepared by the Education Ministry and circulated to other government departments, says the universities will be allowed to frame their own rules for academics and the qualifications needed for teaching positions. They will have freedom to decide their fees, curricula and rules for the appointment of faculty.

The innovation universities are meant to fill a gap in research and also tackle new areas or problems significant to India. These include urbanisation, green energy, environmental sustainability and public health

Yale University has already approached the Education Ministry and wants to develop leadership programmes to mentor the 14 innovation universities.

The Ivy League university will act as consultant and 'conceptualiser', giving inputs based on its experience on various aspects of setting up a world-class university including curriculum, teacher training and research.

During a visit to India last month, George Joseph, Yale's assistant secretary, said the university would work with India "on the new innovation universities for references and conceptualising".

"We will be developing leadership programmes for the deans and vice-chancellors of these universities," Joseph said. "We would like to mentor the new innovation universities just like the Indian Institutes of Technology were mentored when they were established."

MIT has also expressed interest in mentoring one university focused on the energy sector. According to officials, MIT is keen to expand its Energy Initiative which pairs the institute's world-class research teams with key players across the innovation spectrum to help improve today's energy systems and create tomorrow's global energy marketplace.

"Though MIT's proposal is still under discussion, the institute feels India can contribute a lot in the energy sector," a ministry official confirmed but who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorised to speak to the media.

The first six IITs were set up with foreign collaboration. At IIT Madras, the German connection is evident and there is no laboratory or department not influenced by the Germans who helped set up the institute.

IIT Kanpur had sought guidance from the Consortium of US universities, especially MIT. Similarly, IIT Bombay came up with the assistance of Unesco through the former Soviet Union in 1958, while IIT Delhi had help from Imperial College, London.

"All IITs found support in foreign partners. The institutes then came up on their own but their foundations were already very strong," the official said, adding that the government planned to seek help from leading foreign universities in areas such as concept, infrastructure, curriculum and research components.

"The idea is to gain from the existing knowledge and advance on the path of research and development, the primary aims of innovation universities," the official said.

Establishing the innovation universities will be independent of the Foreign Providers Bill which enables foreign institutions to set up a fully-fledged academic campus in India.

Leading universities in India such as Delhi University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Central University of Hyderabad and Pune University have been asking for greater academic freedom for some time.

"Giving the university freedom to decide academic posts and fee structure will go a long way in establishing it as a leading research institution. Universities in India have been shackled by government rules and regulations for long," said academician Professor Yash Pal.

India is also looking at a public private partnership model for some of the universities. For instance, the private sector could put in money to develop the infrastructure while the government paid recurring costs such as teacher salary and maintenance fees.

The 14 institutions will be set up under India's 11th five-year plan (2007-12).

A Mishra

Ozg Edu Consultant


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