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PU the best in India? Pinch me, twice

chandigarh Updated: Jun 22, 2014 17:23 IST
Aarish Chhabra

Do you really believe that Panjab University is the best in India? OK, don’t answer that. My aim is not to undermine the university’s qualities, particularly since my own BA degree carries its stamp. But before the believers cite the Times Higher Education University Rankings for Asia (2014) released by a London-based publication, let’s at least address some basics.

First, has PU “again” been ranked number one in India? The answer is: Certainly not.

Indeed, news publications across the country, including this paper, took the Asia rankings by the Times at face value and reported them. To an extent, the media was taken in by the age-old credibility of the British publication house and the blitzkrieg over “new” rankings. The social media has been buzzing ever since, with even the PU’s public relations department using six exclamation marks in its four-sentence Facebook post! The reaction is understandable. But there’s more to understand.

These Asia rankings are not a new study. This is actually the Asia portion of the Times World University Rankings (2013-14) released in October last year. It was in that global study, nine months ago, that PU was placed number one in India and in the 226250 bracket in the world. Calculations put PU at number 32 in Asia. Now, as the Asia portion of the same rankings has simply been released as a separate report, PU will obviously remain number one in India and 32nd in Asia. No new data was collected, no new assessment done, and no new institutes participated. It is just a retelling of basic old facts, plus some additional details.

What are the additional details? Why has Times released a separate Asia report? Is it a marketing gimmick? Not really.

The point is that when the world rankings were released, only the top 200 universities found respectful mention, and only their detailed rankings and scores were highlighted. In that, just 20 Asian universities - none from India - made the cut. Further, those ranked 200-400 in the world were bunched 25 each - rank 201-225, 226250, and so on. Another 41 Asian universities, including PU and four others from India, came in this category.

Hence, in all, only 61 Asian universities got recognition in the world report. Beyond that, not even the names of participants were shared.

The Asia report released now names the top 100 for the continent alone. Hence, beyond the 61 that figured in the world report, details of 39 more Asian universities have been shared. This gives a wider picture for Asia, and also gives a place under the sun to more institutions. For instance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, was not revealed even as a participant in the world top 400. On the Asia level, it has been ranked 90, as per the ‘new’ report.

At least now we know that 10 Indian universities, JNU lowest among them, made it to Asia top 100. Names of 11 other participants from India remain secret as the Times said it won’t “embarrass” universities that were “brave enough” to submit data for the survey but did not get any ranking. Perhaps it will release the India portion as a separate report; we may then know all 21 participants and celebrate PU’s top rank once again!

Before that, let’s go to the second part of our analysis.

One may say, at least as compared to six IITs, JNU, Jadavpur University and Aligarh Muslim University, PU has been rated the best. But even that is solely due to its citation score -frequency with which work of its researchers is cited by others - which had 30% weightage in the overall rankings. At 84.7%, PU topped Asia in citation.

There is a catch. A top PU functionary said that had it not been for studies at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, in Geneva, the citation score would have been “drastically” lower. PU’s participant researchers (a fraction of the total 2,000) get credit on every CERN research paper, irrespective of the amount of contribution.

But in teaching and research, each carrying the same weightage as citation, PU scored only 25.8% and 14%, while other parameters mattered little. The overall score was 40.3%.

This analysis, however, is not meant to demean. The goal is to ensure moderation and shatter delusions. PU officials acknowledge that such rankings primarily help put focus on academics and get muchneeded funding. That’s a major reason why more institutes from India are participating, up from 14 the last time to 21. That’s a noble cause, indeed.

At the same time, we must underline that 50% of teaching posts at PU and its colleges remain vacant. Its financial state is sorry. Its syllabus remains unimaginative. And its degrees still remain mug-up-and-pen-down exercises in theoretical inertia. There can be valid questions on the Times’ rankings system; but that is futile. We anyway know where PU really stands. We also know its potential. Let’s just not get ahead of ourselves.