International ranking of universities has gained much traction in recent years. There are several commercial organisations that provide them annually. They collect vast amounts of data from the universities, and from different bibliographic databases. They also mine the data to offer consultancy to universities that wish to improve their ranking vis-à-vis their peer institutions.
With the increasing privatisation of higher education, universities need to compete to attract the best fee-paying students, as well as faculty from across the world. Students look at rankings to choose their destinations. The prestige associated with higher ranks also drives publicly funded universities to benchmark themselves globally. Ranking agencies are, therefore, at the centre of the ongoing commercialisation and globalisation of higher education.
The annual publication of the ranks of the IITs and some Indian universities by global agencies has attracted media attention and much despair about the absence of our institutions in the top 100 or 200. It is important to understand how the ranks are derived and their relevance to us. We shall restrict ourselves to the IITs for the present.
Few students in India use international rankings to choose between the IITs and foreign universities, nor do the top faculty joining the IITs. For the IITs, therefore, the rankings are solely for the purpose of global benchmarking.
It is pertinent to note that publicly funded higher education in India is organised by verticals. We have the IITs, law universities, medical universities, the IIMs, the IISERs and so on, each for a specialised field. We do not have comprehensive universities such as Stanford, Harvard, Tsinghua or NUS. Our older universities focus on the arts and sciences. Therefore, we ought to focus on the subject-wise rankings published by the agencies to obtain any meaningful insight. In one survey, for example, the older IITs are consistently ranked in the 50-60 range globally in the engineering/ technology category.
The parameters employed by different agencies vary in scope and weightage. The number of research publications by faculty in peer-reviewed journals, and how much they are cited (measured by a variety of hotly debated indices) are important criteria for all. The student-faculty ratio is also incorporated in many rankings. It is widely accepted that a lower ratio is better. The IITs have a sanctioned ratio of 10:1 and have had an in-place ratio of 12:1 for the most part (except for a worsening to 14:1 in recent years due to the 54 per cent increase in enrolment, which will correct itself in a few years). These numbers are comparable to the best universities worldwide.
Employer recognition and academic peer recognition are often used by the agencies. A large number of employers and academics worldwide are polled for their opinions about the universities. These surveys attempt to measure the name recall, the presence of alumni in global corporations and the visibility of faculty and their research in international conferences and journals.
Headcounts of the international students enrolled for degree programmes and the foreign faculty on the university rolls are considered important measures of internationalisation. On both these counts, the IITs score nearly zero. While the benefits of diversity on a campus are undisputed, we have to decide as a country whether we are willing to pay the price for it in terms of seats lost to Indians and the payout of globally competitive salaries to faculty.
The weightage given to these parameters vary among the agencies, and some also give significant weight to the presence of Nobel laureates on the faculty. Surprisingly, the quality of teaching is not assessed, presumably because of the inherent difficulties. In most cases, weightage for data-oriented factors is lower than weightage for survey-oriented factors. However, none of the agencies measures certain parameters that are important to the IITs and India, such as collaborative research and development with the space, defence and nuclear energy sectors, and industry in general. The IITs also routinely provide the government expertise on technologically challenging projects. To cite just one recent example, IIT Madras is collaborating with the ASI in the restoration of the Uttarakhand temple. The IITs have also created the world’s largest free online repository of engineering courses. This is of no relevance to the ranking agencies, nor is the strong commitment of the IITs to affirmative action. The rankings also do not consider alumni impact.
The contributions of the IITs are to be assessed along several dimensions. Some of these are relevant globally and are used by international ranking agencies, while other important ones are totally ignored. We should reflect on the relative weightage given to the dimensions assessed and not lose sight of those that are not. To the extent that the rankings tell us something about where we stand globally with respect to research, visibility, etc, they are relevant, and the IITs should strive to improve their position. Above all, we should not blindly adopt these rankings as an end in themselves, nor allow ourselves to be railroaded into pursuing select dimensions of performance while neglecting others, especially those that are critical to our national development goals.
The writer is director, IIT Madras