It was my illegal shelter for over a year. My humble BA degree carries its logo. It has arguably the most beautiful university campus in India. It is also, as is well known, the alma mater of our Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But I am sure I wasn’t the only one surprised at Panjab University suddenly becoming India’s best.
You must’ve heard that PU has been ranked in the 226-250 group in the Times Higher Education (THE) world rankings for 2013-14, the highest among Indian institutions and 32nd in Asia. Like all things international, the chart is dominated by the US, which has seven in the top 10 and nearly half the top 100. UK comes second with 11 in the top 100. But undeterred that no Indian varsity was again not in the top 200 (only five in the 400 that were ranked), the stats have been bandied about and crackers burst. Now that we are almost done with the chestthumping, let’s look at the rankings at a fundamental level.
From India, 21 institutions participated — you have to submit data after invitation — but the Times has not revealed names of the 16 that did not make it to the final 400. Response from the THE’s public relations agency is that they would not like to “embarrass” institutions who were “brave enough” to participate but did not receive a ranking. Told that transparency may help read the chart more clearly, they only shared the figures that 13 of the 21 were public institutions, four private and the rest autonomous. Last year, the total was 14, while data since the start of the rankings in 2010 was not shared. This year, participation from India was highest.
The doubt-breeding no-names policy discounted, I am tempted to assume that Delhi University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Central University of Hyderabad or the likes did not participate. But, I would only underline ‘our’ university’s chief shortcoming - over 50% of the teaching posts in PU and its 188 affiliated colleges remain vacant. The data — 1,586 sanctioned posts, 797 vacant and 79 occupied by retired teachers rehired — was submitted by the PU registrar in a court recently.
Apart from the fact that it filled the form, what worked for PU was the citation of studies carried out by its scholars anywhere in the world. Though in research PU got 14%, it hit 84.7 on citation impact, which carried a third of the ranking weightage. Top PU officials say that had it not been for the studies at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, in Geneva, the citation score would have fallen “drastically”. PU’s participant researchers (a fraction of the 2,000) get credit on all papers produced at CERN, the lab most famous for having discovered the Higgs boson, the ‘god particle’. On most of the other 12 parameters, PU scored in the 20s.
“These days, if you have talent, you also have to be able to sell it well. PU has done that and deserves credit for it. The IITs, whom we have defeated, so to speak, probably did not work hard enough on the presentation,” said a senior faculty member. It’s still worse than at least 225 of the world’s universities.
But the argument is not to demean PU or its “bravado” in applying. The point remains moderation - which must be the norm on celebration but certainly not on ambition. Officials at PU acknowledge that the ranking, at best, would help put focus on academics and get corporate funding for sustainable research. That’s a major reason why the union human resource development ministry wants institutions to participate. But the celebration has been out of proportion for a relative achievement.
Until PU gets the required faculty and does not have to struggle for funds every few years, until its mug-up-and-pass degrees achieve the same level as that of other top institutions and its students are employable, and until the participation in these rankings is more broad-based, believing that PU is the best university in India would only breed a false sense of achievement and a delusional inertia. That can do more harm than good. For PU’s own sake — to borrow a fellow columnist’s twisted phrase — reading too much into the rankings would be like the left arm of a black man: neither right nor fair. Let’s spare some crackers.