Forget the rankings

India must focus on the quality of its higher education.

Updated: April 10, 2014 2:05:03 am
Universities that have real research strength, this includes the IIT-IIM sector and one or two nascent private non-profit universities, are key to a presence in the rankings. Universities that have real research strength, this includes the IIT-IIM sector and one or two nascent private non-profit universities, are key to a presence in the rankings.

By: Philip G. Altbach

There are very few, if any, Indian higher education institutions today that deserve to be reasonably placed in the international university rankings. The universities simply do not have the required quality of research and publication in their postgraduate departments. Undergraduate colleges, a small number of which are excellent, do not have either the size or the profile to do well. India’s outstanding specialised institutions, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), are a bit too small and too specialised to compete at the top levels. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and many others have recognised the quality problems in Indian higher education and have urged the sector to improve. Clearly, improvement needs to come first, and recognition by the rankings will follow.

Instead, there is much obsessing in India about the rankings, rather than a focus on what is really required — increased productivity and higher quality research. The latest bit of silliness is the reported proposal from the higher education secretary, Ashok Thakur, that the IITs should be counted as a single unit by the rankers rather than as separate institutions. Other proposals include providing lists of names of faculty from particular Indian universities to the QS rankers so that they can praise their own schools when sent questionnaires — an effort to “game the system” in order to artificially boost an institution’s placement — a tactic used by many schools, which may work with QS World University Rankings, but not with the Times Higher Education or the Shanghai rankings.

These efforts are symptomatic of two larger problems: placing emphasis where it does not belong and not focusing on the key challenge. India’s obsession with international rankings is misplaced. In general, the rankings reflect several key things: research productivity as expressed by publications in major international journals and reputation among academics and university administrators around the world. The methodologies of the three main global rankings differ. The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), known as the Shanghai rankings, is the most objective because it simply measures objective data such as research productivity and impact. But it is limited to research and gives an advantage to the main English-speaking universities in the United States and Britain. Times Higher Education focuses on research but also has some measures for teaching and other university activities, and uses a reputational survey for 20 per cent of its ranking. QS, a for-profit education company based in Britain, relies most on a reputation survey; about half of the total score. The reputation components of these surveys are the most questionable in terms of validity, because of methodological and other issues. So the more reputation is counted, the less valuable the result.

The key challenge, of course, is improving the actual quality of Indian higher education, particularly the research university sector. This means significant increases in funding for higher education; India does not compare favourably internationally. Neither the Central government nor the states provide adequate funding. But money is not the only thing needed.

The universities that have real research strength, and this includes a few of the traditional universities, the IIT-IIM sector, several specialised institutions, and one or two nascent private non-profit universities, are key to a presence in the rankings. More important, India urgently needs some “world class” universities that can compete globally and which can compete on equal terms with the world’s top universities. This means identifying a small number of universities with the potential for research excellence and providing them with adequate resources. Research universities are only a small part of any academic system, and India must develop a rational system if it is to serve national higher education needs. Research universities sit at the top of a rational system.

It also means that the research-intensive universities must function like world class institutions — free of political interference, with appropriate governance structures, merit-based hiring and promotion arrangements, and without a stifling bureaucracy. Organising a system and an effective research university sector is not “rocket science”. The countries that score well in the rankings have done it. When India organises its higher education structure effectively and provides the support needed, it will do well in the rankings.

The writer is research professor and director of the Centre for International Higher Education at Boston College, US

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