“Done is better than perfect” was renowned economist Lawrence Henry “Larry” Summers’ message to India during his visit to the country this week. The former Treasury Secretary of the Bill Clinton administration was in the city to talk about higher education. Hinting towards policy paralysis which is stunting India’s growth story, the academician and economist emphasised on the need for speedy decision-making in all spheres. He also talked about the need for institutional autonomy, flexibility and competition. The “Make in India” vision will also have to be coupled with the “Study in India” mission, he said, adding that openness towards diversity is another crucial factor for development.
“Done is better than perfect. I think your government can internalise that a bit. Decisions have to be made. We just hope that they remain right, but they just have to be made. And the sense of acceleration in decision-making in every sphere, I think that would make a very big difference for India over time. The other thing that one is struck by is the need for infrastructure approval. In general, faster decision making in a presumption of permission, rather than presumption of prohibition, will go a long way,” he said while answering a question by The Sunday Guardian.
Summers was talking at the Mumbai University about “Reinventing The University: Reconciling Equity and Excellence in Higher Education Worldwide”. The programme was jointly organised by the Mumbai University and Observer Research Foundation, a think-tank.
Summers emphasised on the importance of autonomy to educational institutions and said that the factor plays a pivotal role in any country’s development. On the background of the recent controversies over various appointments in institutions, the observation gains more prominence.
“There is a concept of reform and there is a concept of liberalisation. They are not the same thing. Sometimes the right thing to do is to govern better, sometimes the right thing to do is to govern less. And those are not the same things either. The government has to allow public institutions to be autonomous and set their own course. Institutions like the University of California which are comfortably in the top 100 public institutions, are funded by the government. But no Governor or Senator has anything to say about who will be our faculty, no Governor or Senator has anything to say about what constitutes an appropriate curriculum, no Governor or legislator has the slightest thing to say about which fields are important. Autonomy is the second premise of success,” he said.
Hinting at the maze of red tape in the country, Summers joked about the way India would approach the concept of autonomy. Exemplifying the matter, he said that India is far short in attracting foreign students for higher studies here. “When that is the matter, it should not be that a planning committee is appointed to establish a framework committee to look into internationalisation of education. The framework committee in return will then appoint an implementation committee,” he joked as the audience applauded. He said that educational institutions should be given autonomy to look outside and decide their own curriculum to make it more competitive.
He also said that it was important for the government to fund basic research, and not interfere in academic matters. “The process of letting scientists decide what is the best science, guides resources much better than the process of letting politicians decide what is the best science. A strong commitment to funding basic research is a second crucial factor of growth,” Summers said.
“How universities engage with science is a crucial question. It is a crucial question for the government as well. Part of understanding why American universities are so influential is because basic research is supported by the government. But how to decide where basic research is going to be done? If it is left to the Ministry of Finance, it will be — some of it in each state, each university, more of it for a lobby, with better connect. Instead, institutional system is to be reviewed. Groups of scientists evaluate each others’ proposals; those who write best will get the funds.”