T K Arun
It is high time policymakers saw universities as vital parts of cities. Universities spawn innovative ideas and diverse talent, which, combined, can create new businesses, jobs, vibrant communities and fresh tax sources.
Historical Legacy of Universities: A Colonial Perspective
Of course, universities need to change how they see themselves, as well. The British created a university system in India primarily aimed at creating an English-speaking class of potential local administrators mentally and functionally subservient to colonial rule. Unlike at universities back home in Britain, the focus, at the universities the British set up in India, was almost exclusively on teaching, at the expense of producing new knowledge. To the extent the colonial administration needed research to be done in India, it set up a bunch of specialised laboratories, many of which still continue.
Evolution of University Culture: From Teaching to Research and Beyond
The government of the newly independent nation also continued with the tradition of utilising universities for teaching and specialised research institutions for R&D. The culture continued, largely, at institutions of excellence, as well, whether IITs or IIMs. Popular expectations are moulded along similar lines. A university’s worth is measured by how well its placements go at term-end, not by how many PhDs it produces, the laurels its staff, students and alums win for advancing knowledge, how many patents it files or how many startups spring from it.
Things are changing. Policy must give this change momentum and money.
Universities as Catalysts for Economic Growth: Global Case Studies
A swift survey of what universities can do for a town would be instructive. Even traditionally, just the presence of one or more universities in the vicinity could create vital business for a town. This is as true for Bologna in Italy as it is for Aligarh and Manipal in India. Things are a little more complex in the age of venture capital, startups and nas cent campus entrepreneurship.
Silicon Valley is almost entirely the creation of Stanford University. In early 1940, Stanford happened to have the country’s top expert on radio engineering on its faculty, Frederick Terman.
Vannevar Bush, ex-MIT dean of engineering, who, along with a group of the country’s top science and research administrators — Harvard president James Conant, Bell Labs president Frank Jewett and Caltech dean Richard Tolman — had persuaded President Franklin Roosevelt to appoint a National Defence Research Committee (NDRC) to rope in civilian research capability in the country’s universities to build better and more effective weapons systems, and deputed Terman to head a team of 800 researchers to understand and attack German radar systems. Bush was the one to persuade Roosevelt to build the atomic bomb, and assemble the team that launched the Manhattan Project.
Bush and his committee later got themselves converted into the Office of Scientific Research and Development, which not just funded research at top universities but had the budget to fund the development of prototype weapons systems based on the research output. The exigencies of World War 2 and exertions of these scientific administrators led to US universities receiving large dollops of government funds for targeted research.
Terman led his research at Harvard, Stanford not being considered good enough, but returned to Stanford after WW2, armed with the knowledge that cutting-edge electronics research would shape modern warfare, with a bunch of bright students and researchers, and a number of defence research contracts. Terman milked the Cold War-induced tech race, obtaining liberal defence funding for research at Stanford.
He later pushed for setting up an industrial park on Stanford’s 8,000 acre campus. America’s tech pioneers, Lockheed, Fairchild, Xerox, Hewlett-Packard, etc, were born there. These startups spawned a giant new industry, formed by students and researchers of the university to commercialise their ideas. Stanford often receives more than $1 billion in donations annually from grateful alumni.
Boston, in the neighbourhood of Harvard, MIT and an assortment of other universities and colleges, is home to a thriving biotechnology ecosystem. Oxford and Cambridge universities have fed new urban centres where their students start up and scale research-driven businesses. Ohio State University has made the state a vigorous biotechnology region.
Local Impact: Universities as Drivers of Regional Development
In Coimbatore, a casual observer might see an endless string of PSG group-owned institutes — of technology, medicine, nursing, management, hospitality, design and so on — on either side of the main Avinashi Road, and detect a whiff of crony capitalism.
This disdain lasts only till you come across a young man, who, after graduating in robotics from a PSG institute of technology, worked for a few years at a Lakshmi Machine Works plant competing with a German major to automate piecing together of broken yarn, before switching to a company founded by five PSG graduates to develop solutions in the IoT, which already employs 700, the majority at a Dubai branch. Shiv Nadar, who founded HCL, is a PSG alumnus, like him, he says.
Coimbatore has lost its textile industry but has become a hub of precision engineering. Its graduates are not racing a million others for a handful of government jobs. They are confident and optimistic about their future. The PSG institutes play a role in crafting that confidence.
Every city deserves a university.
TK Arun is a senior journalist based in Delhi.
The article was first published in The Economic Times as Every city deserves a University on November 28, 2023.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.
Read more at IMPRI:
Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Aasthaba Jadeja, a research intern at IMPRI.