The onset of a fresh academic session coincides with the release of institutional rankings. Meant primarily to guide and assist prospective students in choosing from among the best institutions and the courses offered by them, the ranking system comes off as an innovative attempt at quantifying excellence.
With 30,000 institutions of different types and standards, the Indian Higher Education System (IHES) is the world’s third-largest system. The need to map institutional unevenness and the inherent qualitative disparities in standards make rankings significant. This explains the importance of the MHRD-led National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF). The other system of ranking that has got traction is the India Today rankings. However, when read in conjunction with each other, they produce conflating results.
For example, the NIRF for 2020-21 in the colleges’ category declares Miranda House as the best college, assigning Lady Shri Ram College and Hindu College second and third positions respectively, while the India Today rankings declare Hindu College as the best college for arts and science and the second-best college for commerce following Shri Ram College of Commerce. It is interesting to note that Miranda House does not have a commerce department and despite being ranked behind Hindu College as per India Today rankings, it gets the coveted top position in the NIRF rankings. While such confusion accrues on account of divergent weightage accorded to parameters, all the rankings end up assigning the top positions to a few select institutions.
According to the declared methodology (2019) in the college category, the NIRF allocates 40 per cent weightage to teaching-learning outcomes, which is derived from a mathematical calculation of student strength, students-teacher ratio, permanent/temporary appointments, number of PhD holders in faculty positions as well as financial resource utilisation. It accords 10 points to outreach and diversity quotients, another 15 and 25 per cent to research output and graduation outcomes respectively, and 10 points to perceptions amongst employers and academic peers.
However, I would argue that despite being based on a strong methodological platform, the NIRF rankings fail in accomplishing the mandate of segregating the chaff from the wheat. This is because the so-called top colleges top the charts largely on account of archaic perceptions, triggering the best intakes, which makes them score high on academic parameters. The student strength or the faculty-students ratio is not something these colleges can do much about. Being government-funded, they are bound to admit all those who make it past their declared cut-off marks.
The same is true of the diversity quotient. None of these colleges has any say in designing any policy parameter that would encourage or discourage students’ recruitments from varied backgrounds. In terms of resource use, most of the resources are rigidly fixed and even the slightest deviations attract penal action. The appointments and promotions of faculty members are controlled by their respective affiliating universities, and entirely independent of any merit-based distributive mechanism. The point is that the existing regulatory mechanisms of the IHES do not allow any flexibility to develop innovative pedagogy or outreach and diversity formulae on their own. All they need to do is to stick to the government-set policy directions and feel lucky if it rains.
It is not surprising, therefore, to find almost the same set of colleges topping the charts. They do well because they have a feeder cadre of the best. The application of a ranking methodology designed for an open and dynamic system when applied to a closed one only ends up conflating and confounding realities. It is not to say that the so-called top colleges in India do not have the drive or the capabilities to excel independently. But for a real assessment, they would need to be freed from inherent structural rigidities and be brought at par with each other.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 9 under the title “The Fallacy Of Rankings.” The writer teaches Political Science at Hindu College, University of Delhi. Views expressed are personal.
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