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The futility of ranking

Let’s focus on the long haul systemic reform that higher education needs

Published:June 27, 2014 12:09 am
We need reforms so that colleges and universities can implement structural changes that foster academic freedom. (Source: PTI) We need reforms so that colleges and universities can implement structural changes that foster academic freedom. (Source: PTI)

By: S. Giridhar column

Once more, the issue of Indian universities not figuring in global rankings is cause for hand wringing and heart burn.

This time, a sense of indignation has also crept in, as the QS Asia and QS BRICS surveys show that our universities are not figuring adequately even among Asian or BRICS countries. The argument goes that these global surveys do not consider the unique context of India, they give too much weightage to research, to the funding received for research, the percentage of foreign students and so on. Valid points, but the creation of an India-specific ranking system is hardly the kind of measure that will help India improve the quality of its higher education.

My belief is that India featuring among the top 200 universities in world rankings is not a problem. Institutions such as the Indian Institute of Science and the IITs are within striking distance and can be funded and supported to make the grade. But neither the status symbol of a presence in international league tables nor an India-specific ranking system will address the real malaise in our higher education, which is the very poor undergraduate system for basic disciplines.

Our 550 universities and their 16,000 colleges, which ought to be the backbone of a thriving higher education system for the basic disciplines, are in dire straits. Most of them are defeated by inadequate resources, the lack of teaching talent and infrastructure, and are without the means to aim for any measure of quality. Our schoolteachers emerge from these poor quality colleges and teach our schoolchildren in a system that is based on rote learning, devoid of the spirit of enquiry and critical thinking. The vicious cycle continues as these children in turn graduate in science, arts or commerce, neither evolved in his or her discipline nor having acquired a social orientation or values.

So even if we create our own “contextually valid” ranking system with faultless methodology and perfect execution, it is not going to address the core systemic problem. While the top 25 universities will be in a rat race as they chase the rankings, there would be unhealthy jostling for precious talent and the exercise would suck up resources and public attention. It will do nothing for the lakhs of desperate students who pass through our colleges.

We have evidence that this university assessment abhiyan could be an exercise in futility. First, an examination of the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) will show that its assessment and ratings are not taken seriously or acted upon. The inadequacy of its assessment is also reflected in the manner it liberally gives out “A plus” and “A” ratings. Perhaps the first step is to take a hard look at the NAAC, shake it up, make it use serious yardsticks where the highest rating is reserved for truly global quality institutions and the rest are placed in relation to that standard. That would address one half of the issue, that of reliable and meaningful assessment.

What of the other and more significant half, the use of these assessments for continuous improvement? That brings me to the second piece of evidence — the various school assessment exercises across the country that have not improved levels of learning. ASER, the dip-stick survey of the country for a decade now, tells us every year that half the children are not learning. Similarly, statewide, detailed quality assessment exercises show that the majority of schools are not doing their job. Other studies show that neither in private nor in public schools are children learning to develop their potential. But none of these assessments has helped improve school education because the answer lies not in these assessments but in a major systemic overhaul, most importantly, a deep and intensive revamp of our teacher education system. If these assessments have not moved the needle even a little in school quality, what makes us believe they will have different results for college education?

The answer to improving the quality of our higher education is actually a long-term, difficult process to totally reform our university programmes, organisation and regulation. We need governance reforms that question the purpose and functioning of the existing governing and statutory bodies. We need regulatory reforms to address deep-rooted rent seeking and to deal harshly with corruption and unethical commercialisation, organisational reforms that enable decentralisation, splitting up universities and explicitly preventing political appointments. We need reforms so that colleges and universities can implement structural changes that foster academic freedom in the curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, and they are able to recruit and appoint faculty without political interference.

Other things need to be done simultaneously to address the core issue. First, increasing public spending on higher education, because currently we spend a mere 1 per cent of our GDP on it. Second, significantly invest in basic disciplines. Third, improve and give teeth to the NAAC, make it meaningful by including measures of inclusion and equity as well as quality of learning outcomes. Fourth, address the great shortage of quality teachers in our universities by creating a system where the best people in a discipline, be it humanities or the sciences, choose teaching as a career.

We need a 10- or even 20-year strategy and we should implement it steadfastly, without wavering on the way. If one accepts this premise of long-haul reform, where a number of core systemic issues are painstakingly addressed, one will appreciate the limited value of ideas like the creation of a fresh Indian university ranking system.

The writer is registrar and chief operating officer of Azim Premji University

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