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 Education for Life
 
Building Bostons, not Kanpurs
Business Standard, India Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sanjeev Sanyal
Indian cities do not think of their universities and research institutes as important drivers of urban growth. At most, they are seen as utilitarian places for teaching students. Their importance for clustering human capital and driving innovation is simply not seen as part of overall urban strategy, writes Sanjeev Sanyal in Business Standard.

Around the world, universities are the stuff that makes great cities. Imagine Boston without Harvard, MIT and the myriad other institutions that are clustered around the Boston-Cambridge area. In Britain, Oxford and Cambridge are vibrant urban centres that derive their vigour almost entirely from playing host to famous universities. Even large and diversified global cities like London and New York would be much diminished without the intellectual clustering of LSE, Columbia, UCL and NYU.

...

Yet, Indian cities do not think of their universities and research institutes as important drivers of urban growth. At most, they are seen as utilitarian places for teaching students. Their importance for clustering human capital and driving innovation is simply not seen as part of overall urban strategy.

...

Thus, Kanpur and Kharagpur benefit little from being host to a prestigious institution like the IIT. This is absurd.

The software of cities

Urban development is not just about the “hardware” — buildings, roads, plumbing and so on. It is the people, their social/economic activity and their continuous interaction that bring cities alive. Successful cities are those that can cluster human capital and encourage innovation, creativity and exchange of ideas.

...

Universities are key to the software of a city. They attract young talent, encourage the churn of ideas and trigger innovation.

...

...

Prior to Independence, the urban role of universities was appreciated. The colleges of Bombay and Calcutta Universities were built into the city much like the colleges of London. Even Delhi University, although built as a separate campus, was still seen as a part of the overall urban fabric. There were even important towns like Allahabad and Aligarh that were driven largely by their vibrant universities, much like Oxford and Cambridge.

Contrast this to how tertiary education institutions were built after Independence. All the IITs and IIMs are large, sealed campuses built originally outside the city.

...

How different from the urban campuses of MIT and Harvard Business School. This is a loss to both sides.

Perpetuating the mistake

We appear to have learned little from our past mistake. Indeed, this is not even considered an issue worthy of attention and debate. Thus, the establishment of a new university or institute is still about acquiring large tracts of land, often hundreds of acres, and then building out stand-alone buildings. If anything, success is measured by how much land has been acquired rather than the quality of education/research.

This is a very wasteful process at many levels. First, it is unnecessarily converting productive farm and forest land. Why does Vedanta need 6,000 acres in Orissa and IIT Jodhpur 700 acres in Rajasthan for teaching a few thousand students? Second, it requires the creation of expensive infrastructure in isolated locations, including staff housing, convocation halls, seminar rooms and so on. How many times a year is the convocation hall used by the institution itself? In a city location, these facilities would have added to the overall urban infrastructure. Third, such remote campuses are inconsiderate of the social, educational and career needs of the families of the faculty and staff. This is a major constraint to finding good faculty. We cannot build universities as if they are industrial-era factory townships where the wives stay at home and the children study in the company school. Finally, and most damagingly, these campuses are unable to generate the externalities that one would associate with a good academic/research institute. Students come and leave. There is no clustering or inter-linkage with the real world.

...

To conclude, universities are an important part of the urban economy and should be seen as an integral part of city-building. As we build out new institutions, we urgently need to stop thinking of them as fenced-off factory townships. We do not need more Kanpurs and Kharagpurs. If India wants to play on the global stage, it needs to create its very own Bostons and Oxfords.

This article was published in the Business Standard on Wednesday, May 12, 2010. Please read the original article here.
Author : Mr Sanyal is an economist with a leading global bank, and an Eisenhower Fellow on urbanisation
Tags- Find more articles on - Boston | Harvard | IIT | Kanpur | Kharagpur | MIT | Oxford | Sanjeev Sanyal

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