The futility of ranking

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

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)
Published on:June 27, 2014 12:09 am

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, …continued »

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