Higher education in India is ridden with complex issues which need immediate and comprehensive attention. Shail Kumar has been closely associated with the top tertiary education in India and the US. An MBA from Indiana University, Bloomington and B.Tech from IIT Kharagpur, Shail has been an administrator with UC Berkeley and UC San Diego, and is a former president of  IIT Foundation. He has authored Building Golden India: How to unleash India’s vast potential and transform its higher education system. Now. Shail has also founded two start-ups and has held executive positions in several Fortune 500 and Silicon Valley based corporations. In an e-interview with  Rajesh Mehta , Consulting Editor, Governance Today, Shail dwells upon some of  the crucial aspects of  higher education in the country.



shailkumarIn your book, “Building Golden India”, you say that Indian higher education which you call India’s nerve center, is in crisis. Please elaborate.

Yes. First let me explain why higher education system is the nerve center for any nation, especially India. Higher education system, according to globally accepted standards and definition, includes universities, colleges, and vocational schools. Thus, higher education system prepares professionals for all sectors of the economy, including teachers for primary and secondary schools. In a vibrant system, colleges and universities are enablers of research, innovation, and entrepreneurship, addressing problems facing the society and nation, and preparing individuals for lives and careers. This means that higher education system affects future of the person, family, society, economy, and the nation. It is one system that affects us all just as the nervous system affects a body. That’s why I term it the nerve center of the country.

     Second, even though India’s higher education system has come a long way since independence, it is in crisis. It is broken on all fronts that matter and is disconnected from the needs and aspirations of its people, society, industry, and the nation. The following key facts point towards a crisis:

• Just over 20 per cent of the people who could be enrolled in higher education are currently enrolled in colleges and universities. Most developed nations are in the 50-95 per cent range for this metric.

• India’s premier higher education institutions such as the IITs, IIMs, and AIIMS serve less than 0.5 per cent of the total students enrolled in colleges and universities. Further, they are all narrowly specialized institutions — an outdated model for building a Golden India.

• According to one study, 7590 per cent of the graduating  students from India’s colleges  and universities are considered  unemployable by the industry.

• Industry is spending 6-12 months of training to make these students ready for productive work.

• After close to 70 years of independence, India does not have one world-class comprehensive research university and just one university, IISc Bengaluru, was ranked in the top 500 of global rankings.

The nation, the society, and its individuals are paying a huge price for the dysfunctional system. There is hyper-competition among students to join one of the premier institutions. An increasing number of students are going overseas for higher education. Because majority of the students who have received their degrees in India are considered unemployable, there is hyper-competition among corporations to recruit and retain employable graduates. Industry is paying a price of high employee turnover and escalating salaries. All this while, India’s mega challenges are going unsolved.

You have indicated India needs a Gray Revolution. What do you mean by it and how is it expected to help?

     India has done well in times of crises. The green revolution followed a severe food shortage, and the white revolution  transformed milk production and distribution. The 1991 economic liberalization was also done at gunpoint. India had no foreign exchange reserves left and had just pawned its gold deposits to keep its promises.

     Similarly, we need a Gray Revolution for the crisis in our higher education system which would transform India’s higher education system on all the key dimensions – scale and speed, scope and structure, and excellence and impact. It is about reimagining the system — setting the bar high, establishing a system with multiple pathways for students, dismantling meaningless regulations and regulatory bodies, and attracting the best and the brightest talent to be faculty members.

shail-interviewIn my book —Building Golden India: How to unleash India’s vast potential and transform its higher education system. Now I have shared a framework for comprehensive reforms at the national and state levels some of which are mentioned below:

  • Establish 20–50 new world-class comprehensive research universities in the next 10 years.
  • Transform 20–50 existing institutions of excellence, such as IITs,  IIMs, and AIIMS, to National Universities of India (NUIs) status.
  • Immediately stop establishing new single field institutions, such as IIT, IIM, AIIMS, IISER, NIT, IIIT, NISER, IIPH, ISI,  NIFT, NID, and Nursing and Teacher Training Institutes.
  • Prepare, attract, and retain the best and the brightest minds  as faculty members.

Currently, there is no world- class multidisciplinary research university in India. Establishing forty to one hundred NUIs will build critical scale and excellence at the highest levels. NUI must be comprehensive and include all fields—arts and humanities, architecture and city planning, biological sciences, business, education, engineering, law, mathematical sciences, medical sciences, nursing, physical sciences, public health, public policy, and social sciences—all co-located in one campus. Further, NUIs must excel in research, innovation, and education. They must make an impact on the local community, state, region, and the nation. They must also foster interdisciplinary thinking, dialogue, and research. As the primary doctorate-granting institutions, they would be expected to prepare the next generation of faculty members for colleges and universities. Finally, these NUIs must have a capacity of thirty to fifty thousand students per campus.

NUI alumni who become faculty members and teachers will raise the quality of teaching and research in colleges and universities around the country and quality of teaching in primary and secondary schools. Spread across the country, the NUIs would also serve as state and regional hubs for excellence in research and innovation, education, and entrepreneurship. NUIs would be expected to set the standard for excellence in the country and be in the top echelons of global rankings within ten to fifteen years of their founding.

One of the fundamental changes we must institutionalize is a radically new compensation and incentive structure for the faculty members. Their total compensation and incentive structure has to be benchmarked with the local industry and global faculty compensation and not pegged to IAS or any other government category’s pay scales. A flexibility to pay differential salaries based on market forces and merit must be part of this transformation. World-class incentives must also be matched with world-class processes and accountability, such as the tenure system.

In your book, you have put in case studies on many Indian and US universities. What in your opinion are the central  features that distinguish  Indian universities from the American ones?

In my book, my focus is on the higher education system and not the institutions per se.  However, I have researched and created case studies on several universities in India (Nalanda University from India’s Golden Age), and US (UC Berkeley, Stanford University), so that we can learn valuable lessons. I have reviewed extensively the US system (at a national scale), California (at the state scale), and briefly covered relevant lessons from Singapore, Finland, South Korea, and China.

There is a marked difference among premier institutions in the US and India. In India, the top institutions, i.e. IITs, IIMs, and AIIMS, are narrowly specialized institutions that provide education in just engineering, management, or medicine. Further, they provide education to a very small fraction of the applicant pool. Till recently, they were mostly focused on teaching.

building-golden-indiaThere is a marked difference among premier institutions in the US and India. In India, the top institutions, i.e. IITs, IIMs, and AIIMS, are narrowly specialized institutions that provide education in just engineering, management, or medicine. Further, they provide education to a very small fraction of the applicant pool. Till recently, they were mostly focused on teaching.

On the other hand, in the US, premier institutions such as Stanford, UC Berkeley, MIT, and Harvard are multidisciplinary research universities providing education in multiple fields. Their faculty members are dedicated to student learning, conducting research, and making an impact to the society and nation.

In India, unfortunately, the quality of education drops precipitously after the top 10-20 colleges and universities in each field. There is focus on rote learning, curriculum is old and taught without context or application, and there is significant political interference in colleges and universities. In the US, the colleges and universities are mostly independently run organizations with negligible political interference.

At another level, universities in the US have to be competitive to survive and thrive. They compete all the time for: attracting the best and the brightest faculty members and students from within the US and from around the world, research funding, private resources, and prestige. As a result, they are constantly exploring ways to create more compelling value and build a unique brand. Therefore, just like Nalanda University from India’s glorious past, the US universities are intimately connected with all of their stakeholders — students, parents, industry, government, and society. No wonder 146 US universities are in the top 500 of global ranking, USA is the number one destination for foreign students, and over 50 per cent of Indian students who study overseas choose a US university!

What is state of IIT’s in your opinion? What reforms are needed to make these institutions world class?

Less than one to two per cent of the students who take the IITJEE are selected to join one of the IITs. Thus getting into IITs is still a badge of honor at the undergraduate level for those who make it and for their respective families. However, it is a sign of crisis for India.

Like IIMs, AIIMS, and many of the narrowly specialized institutions in India, IITs are an ineffective and inefficient model for today’s and tomorrow’s India. IITs focus only on science and engineering and students are less than 0.2 per cent of the total student enrolment. Some of the IITs have started adding non-engineering disciplines and that is a step in the right direction.

We need to stop establishing new IITs and transform some of the existing IITs, especially the original five and a few more, to become world-class multidisciplinary research universities. (please see my detailed answer to question # 2)

There is a general allegation that Indian tertiary institutions are not investing enough material and human resources in creating  knowledge. Do you agree  to it; if yes, how can this be corrected?

I would say that we are not attracting the best and the brightest talent to become faculty members in our colleges and universities. Unless we change this reality we will continue to fall short on our needs and aspirations and any transformation will be on thin ice.

Great teaching, conducting research and creating new knowledge, and addressing problems that matter to the society and nation starts with the faculty members. We must change the scope and structure of the colleges and universities, remove old British Raj rules and regulations, and make higher education institutions great places to work. This is why I am proposing a Gray Revolution — an urgent and comprehensive reforms, which also includes revamping the faculty compensation, incentives, and accountability system.

What is your opinion about the promise of Massive Open Online  Courses (MOOCs)? It has  caught momentum over last five years or so. Do you think this can act as a viable alternative to the formal system, especially at tertiary level?

MOOCs, technology, and innovations such as blended learning and adaptive learning must play a big role in transforming India’s higher education system. They offer us a unique opportunity to leapfrog building brick and mortar infrastructure, address the severe shortage of well prepared faculty members, reach students in small towns and villages, and provide excellent education to everyone. This is the only way we can be better prepared to educate and train 20-26 million children who are born in India every year.

We ought to think of MOOCs and all such innovations as necessary augmentation to our higher education system. However, MOOCs will never replace the need for  creating and sustaining a thriving teaching, research, innovation, and entrepreneurship focused colleges and universities.

India has emerged as one of the fastest developing start-up nations over last  few years. What explains  this trend and what needs to be done to keep the party going?

The start-up story is encouraging. There are several reasons for this trend. Liberalization of rules and regulations starting 1991, increased globalization, and growing local demands have spurred the Indian economy. This has created substantial demand for new and innovative products and services, and India’s amazing talent has jumped in to cater to this demand. However, to put in perspective, India’s start-up ecosystem is still small. In 2014, India’s share of VC investments was a mere 3.7 per cent of the global total.

There are 10-12 million people joining the labor market every year. We need job creators and not just job seekers. The start-up engine has to be supercharged. In addition, our startups must address some of the looming challenges facing the nation such as water, energy, education, health, and infrastructure. This is where a transformed higher education system would be instrumental. Colleges and universities must enable research, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

Starting 1940s, Stanford University transformed itself to a world-class multidisciplinary research university by attracting the best and brightest faculty members, building steeples of excellence in all the fields, establishing linkages with the industry, and fostering an entrepreneurial culture. In 2014, it raised close to $1 billion in private resources and companies founded by its faculty, alumni, and students generated $2.7 trillion in annual revenues.

If we want to keep the party going, we must transform our ailing higher education system. If we can send an orbiter to Mars, and build nuclear bombs, and our people win Nobel prizes and lead Fortune 500 companies, we can surely transform our higher education system. We have the human potential and the financial resources. Let’s start the transformation. Now.