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Poor marks for research

Indian universities will not figure in global rankings unless there is a structural overhaul of the research system.

Written by Taberez Ahmed Neyaz |
Updated: October 11, 2014 8:57:02 am

There has been much debate about improving the global rankings of Indian universities. Many consider these university rankings to be skewed towards Western countries. But this view fails to account for the performance of Japan, South Korea, China, Singapore and Hong Kong, which do well in these world rankings. In the 2014 Times Higher Education rankings, for instance, there are a total of 24 universities in the top 200 from these countries. Others argue that Indian universities should participate in the rankings, even if they are biased in favour of the West, in order to measure where they stand in comparison to others. This view is supported only by a minority and faces strong resistance.

There is a need to create India-specific rankings of universities that can also involve Saarc nations, a view supported by the prime minister’s office. Yet, it isn’t clear how this India-specific ranking will help compare Indian universities with world-class ones. But the common thread is that there are problems with the way research is conducted in India.

In order to find out why, let’s consider the issue of research at two levels — doctoral research leading to a PhD and faculty research leading to publications. Certain fundamental issues have badly affected doctoral research in India. First, there are problems with basic infrastructure for doctoral students even in the most reputed Central universities. Doctoral students are not given working space. In the absence of office space, students prefer to stay at home instead of coming to university. Although the University Grants Commission (UGC) has now started providing scholarships to all students enrolled in MPhils and PhDs, there is no mechanism yet to create accountability. Thus, many students enrolled in a PhD programme work outside the university, which they are not allowed to do in the West, if they are recipients of aid. Students are expected to teach or work as research or teaching assistants. This is in contrast to India, where PhD students are not allowed to teach, and thus cannot grow as teachers or researchers. As a result, the final thesis is a haphazard piece of work.

Let me now turn to the faculty research, which is a more serious issue. After the introduction of the Academic Performance Index (API) score, faculty members have been asked to publish in refereed journals or journals with ISBN numbers. This means there is no difference between a top-tiered journal and one published from unknown places. In other words, though the UGC has introduced the API system, there is no mechanism to monitor the quality of publications. Although the Jawaharlal Nehru University has tried to categorise journals based on UGC guidelines, not all departments participated. One can also question the way the UGC has categorised journals based on the impact factor, which is heavily skewed in favour of the sciences and engineering.

This is in contrast to most of the world’s top universities, which rank journals and reward faculty members who publish in top-tier journals. This categorisation is done by the respective departments. This isn’t to say that papers published in less-known journals are of low quality.
Rather, what is striking is that faculty members in government universities as well as in some private universities are unaware of such rankings. No effort is made to provide direction to faculty members about publishing in top journals as, for most teachers, promotions are based on experience rather than contribution to research and publications. I hear regular complaints about a lack of infrastructure, including libraries and access to academic databases.

Finally, the way the UGC has been awarding projects to different universities or faculty should be questioned. It would have been easier for the UGC to check quality or create accountability by stipulating that the findings of a project must be published in top journals, apart from the submission of a project report. Despite the UGC funding so many projects every year, most just produce project reports and no publications. In some cases, projects lead to publications in edited volumes, which are unfortunately not given much weight in global evaluations of university performance.

It will be difficult for Indian universities to feature in global rankings unless there is a major structural overhaul of the existing system. It is imperative, though, that India continue to participate in these rankings, which would not only help judge one’s position relative to top-ranked universities but could highlight problem areas and help improve those metrics. Hopefully, the human resource development ministry will take note of the issues afflicting research in Indian universities and act to better it.

The writer teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi

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