Singh's vision for elite universities falters as officials fail to deliver

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 February, 2009, 12:00am


Academics and civil servants in India tasked with creating 14 World Class Universities (WCU) by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are groping in the dark without a blueprint for action even as time is running out.

Dr Singh wants at least a few WCUs, 'like Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge', to materialise by April to impress urban voters ahead of crucial general elections when the ruling Congress party takes on a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party.

Dr Singh outlined his audacious plans at a function to celebrate 150 years of the University of Mumbai in 2007. Since then, according to reports, University Grants Commission (UGC) and National Knowledge Commission (NKC) mandarins have been running around in circles to execute the controversial scheme.

Dr Singh said: 'We will soon establish 14 world-class universities. These universities will pursue international standards of excellence and be rated among the top institutions in the world. They will become the launching pads for India's entry into the knowledge economy.'

Elaborating Dr Singh's vision, a senior official said that 'WCUs will be built to directly challenge the likes of Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge', and named the cities where the new universities would be established before the government finished its tenure this year.

Trying to fast-track WCUs, Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh said it would be embarrassing if the promise was not fulfilled during the government's term.

But until today there is no blueprint for concrete action, although India has sought technical assistance from western governments.

Existing Indian universities are unhappy because WCUs would automatically relegate them to a lower category.

Vice-chancellors openly attacked the proposed institutions at a UGC workshop last year.

Sukanta Chaudhuri, professor of English at Jadavpur University, said Dr Singh's grandiose plan was 'unheard of in history'.

'To think of setting up 14 'world-class' universities, or even one, by government fiat is patently absurd.

'World-class universities grow over time, each along its unique trajectory, driven from within by the faculty and students, and at one remove, by the community. The government can at most provide funds and ensure congenial working conditions.'

Professor Chaudhuri warned that if a so-called WCU ultimately saw the light of day, 'it is unlikely to even match the facilities of a second-tier western university'.