The best indicators of a university’s performance are the learning outcomes and how its education has impacted the students and society. The hype surrounding the announcement of world university rankings by international ranking organisations is unfortunate. Regardless of whether the rankings are beneficial or not, more universities than ever before want to get into these rankings. The obsession to be within the top 100 universities in the world is exasperating. Since there is a potential danger of creating elitism among universities through this ranking, lower-ranked universities may lose out on many counts. Some top-ranked universities want to collaborate only with other top-ranked universities, impairing the less fortunate ones to further sink due to inescapable stigmatisation.
International ranking organisations also force universities to alter their core missions. This has happened with JNU. Although JNU ranks between 100 and 200 in certain disciplines, it does not find a place in world university rankings. The reason is JNU does not offer many undergraduate programmes. We were indirectly told to start more undergraduate programmes in order to scale the ranking order while our university is predominantly a research-oriented institution.
First, let me state the obvious. Indian institutions lose out on perception, which carries almost 50 per cent weightage in many world university ranking schemes. Psychologists know that perception is a result of different stimuli such as knowledge, memories, and expectancies of people. While one can quantitatively measure the correlation between stimuli and perception, perception cannot be a quantifiable standalone parameter. Therefore, perception as a major component in the ranking process can easily lead to inaccurate or unreasonable conclusions.
Rightly or wrongly, international ranking organisations use citations as a primary indicator of productivity and scientific impact a discipline makes. However, studies show that the number of citations per paper is highest in multidisciplinary sciences, general internal medicine, and biochemistry, and it is the lowest in subjects such as visual and performing arts, literature and architecture. It is nobody’s case that the latter subjects are of any less importance. By making citations of published papers from a university as a strong parameter for rankings, we seem to have developed an inexplicable blind spot when it comes to the differences among subject disciplines. It is no wonder that universities such as JNU, whose student intake in science research programmes is less as compared to the other disciplines, will loose out in world university rankings although it has been rated as the second-best university in India.
International ranking organisations are too rigid in their methodology and are not willing to add either additional parameters or change the weightage of current parameters. They are disinclined to employ meaningful and universally fair benchmarks of quality and performance. This is an absolute requisite to take into account the diversity that prevails among the universities. Some Indian higher education institutions even decided not to participate in the world university rankings alleging a lack of transparency in the parameters that are used in the ranking process.
Since universities are complex organisations with multiple objectives, comparing universities using a single numerical value is as ineffectual as comparing a civil engineer with a biologist or a linguist and a dancer. Hence, the danger that such skewed world rankings will downgrade the university education to a mere commodity is a realistic trepidation. This inelastic stance of ranking organisations has forced more than 70 countries to have their own national ranking systems for higher educational institutions.
I had argued in an editorial in IETE Technical Review (March 2015) for India to have its own national ranking system. The MHRD established the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) in 2016. The parameters used by NIRF for ranking Indian institutions are also most suited for many other countries — among the parameters are teaching, learning & resources, research and professional practice, graduation outcomes, outreach and inclusivity and peer perception. Unlike international ranking organisations, NIRF gives only 10 per cent weightage for perception.
In 2016, the NIRF rankings were given in four categories — University, Engineering, Management and Pharmacy. College, Medical, Law, Architecture and Dental were added in 2020. This shows how NIRF is refining its ranking methodology by taking inputs from the stakeholders, which the international ranking organisations seldom do. No right-minded person can plausibly argue against such a ranking system, which recognises and promotes the diversity and intrinsic strengths of Indian educational institutes.
International ranking organisations are often sightless about what it takes to build a world-class educational system as compared to a world-class university. If a country has a world-class educational system with a focus on innovation, best teaching-learning processes, research-oriented towards social good, affirmative action plans for inclusive and accessible education, it will have a more visible social and economic impact.
Indian higher educational institutes need to ask themselves: What positive role can they play in improving the quality of higher education? What can we do to adopt innovative approaches to become future ready? And they need to act on those questions to make a change and plan beyond what is obvious.
NIRF will stimulate healthy competition among Indian educational institutes, which should eventually lead to a world-class Indian educational system. This system will act as a catalyst for the transformation of local universities to world-class institutions.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 28, 2020 under the title ‘Home and the world’. The writer is Vice-chancellor, JNU.
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