Govt must tackle India’s low position in higher education rankings

  • Gursharan Singh, Gursharan Singh
  • Updated: Dec 08, 2015 14:38 IST
India’s consistently low position in the higher education rankings makes it imperative that the government steps in boldly.

India could not make any significant headway in the world ranking of its institutions of higher learning this time either, according to the recently released The Times Higher World University Ranking 2015-16.

However, some marginal improvement over the previous editions was noted after the list was expanded to 800 from 400. But none of our institutes was in the top 200; getting ranked among the top 100 universities remains a distant dream.

Only five Indian institutes could be listed in the top 500. While the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, secured a place in the block 251-300, the other four are IITs (Bombay, Delhi, Kharagpur, Madras) falling in the range of 351-500 of the ranking. However, there can be some solace that in subject-wise ranking, IISc could secure 99th position in engineering and technology. In Asia, the National University of Singapore holds top place (26th overall) while China further improved its ranking with Peking and Tsinghua Universities placed at 42nd and 47th positions, respectively.

Any well-known ranking system for universities or institutes of higher learning places the quality of research as the most important performance indicator. For instance, Times Higher Education determines the status of an institute based on 13 performance indicators, grouped into five broad categories related to teaching, research, citation, industry income and international outlook. Of these, the quality of research and its citation remains the most important criterion and accounts for 60% of the score. Industrial collaboration in research and income from the same is another important indicator.

From time to time, educationists and scientists have been advising the government about much-needed reforms in the Indian system of higher learning. The recent statement by CNR Rao, an acclaimed scientist and Bharat Ratna awardee, is yet another strong reminder of that. Rao lamented that India’s contribution to world science today is only 2.5% against 15% by China, which is now aspiring to be number one after crossing the 16% contribution by the US. We need to discuss and fill the gaps in our strategic planning to compete globally.

There is 35-40% faculty shortage in our institutes of higher education and even up to 90% of the budget is spent only on salaries, leaving highly inadequate amounts for research. Lack of passion and motivation in the faculty to bring in competing projects is another impediment in the way of quality research. The faculty conducts only student-based research. Further, the research done by the students is also not properly planned or monitored and it often lacks international or industrial collaboration. The extremely dismal state of research in higher education in our country can be gauged from the fact that PhD dissertations are sold.

It is pointless to expect quality research from someone who has been awarded the doctorate degree undeservingly, ignoring the merit of the work undertaken. It is a pity that roping in examiners to sign the required papers in the matter of evaluating theses/dissertations has become a routine affair. Almost everyone will get the degree he has applied for, sooner or later. What is the rejection rate of our theses/dissertations? Probably less than even 1%; there may be institutes/departments where a thesis has never been rejected. On the contrary, in US universities, even under highly favourable conditions, only three-quarters of PhD students complete their work. This warrants careful introspection. Above all this, we are also unable to produce the desired number of researchers and thus fail even on quantitative terms. China is now producing 22,000 PhD holders annually as against 8,000 by India.

Our universities do not have any worthwhile liaison with industry for conducting need-based research. For instance, only 38 students could get the Prime Minister’s Doctoral Fellowship (up to Rs 6 lakh per annum) for pursuing their PhD programmes, out of 100 fellowships available, during the past year. The reason was that sponsorship from industry was a pre-requisite to fund the research done by the student, something which the universities could not secure. This is a comment on our inability to strike collaborations with industry for research output. Granting patents indicates the applicability of research. A comparison of patents in 2011 shows Japan comes first with as many as 238,323 patents, followed by the US with 224,525 and China with 172,113. India ranked 17th with only 5,170.

Though starting new universities and colleges is a positive sign, if we are unable to provide faculty even for the existing ones, it becomes questionable. The issue of alarming vacancies in the teaching staff of our universities and colleges needs to be addressed by making the profession attractive. Further, faculty competency should be built through international exposure since it is the pre-requisite for doing cutting-edge research to compete globally. Teachers’ reluctance to move out their home states to serve or learn has become a serious concern, impacting the quality of research. In most Indian universities, a majority of the faculty belongs to the same state or region, with all the three degrees (bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate) from the same or local universities.

Governments (both in the states and the Centre) need to take certain bold measures. The salary of the faculty needs to be linked to the performance of a teacher in terms of research projects, quality publications/patents, etc. Recruiting at least 30% faculty should be done from out of the state and it should be made mandatory for each faculty member to have collaboration in research with reputed national and international universities/institutions. Special incentives should be given for industry-linked research. The faculty’s international exposure should be facilitated. The accreditation of all the institutes of higher learning should be mandatory; and the issue of faculty vacancy should be addressed before giving permission to open new universities and colleges. Public spending on higher education needs to be at least doubled from the existing 0.6% of GDP.

Gursharan Singh is professor and former dean of postgraduate studies, Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana

The views expressed are personal

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