India must not fall for the ranking game

  • Pushkar, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Nov 04, 2014 23:39 IST

Though the world university rankings game is now over 10 years old, our universities have still not been able to do what is necessary to break into the elite group of top 200 institutions. Their omission has upset officials and academics since several Asian universities — notably those in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea — continue to improve their performance. It should be noted that all the rising universities in Asia are public institutions.

A common lament one hears is that the rankings parameters used by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), Times Higher Education (THE) and Shanghai Jiao Tong University — such as international reputation, publications and citations, internationalisation and others — are not suitable for our universities, at least not in the way that each of these is weighted to calculate rankings.

One of the solutions that we are working at to address our ranking woes is to devise our own rankings system. Smriti Irani, the human resource development minister, is reported to have held a number of meetings with heads of central universities, IITs and IIMs to do exactly that. According to reports on ongoing deliberations, the Indian rankings system will include the parameter of “social responsibilities” of universities—i.e. initiatives taken to favour people from diverse social backgrounds, especially the disadvantaged, whether lower castes, scheduled tribes or others — so that larger numbers of people have access to higher education. However, it appears that other ranking parameters will remain approximately the same as those currently used by world university ranking organisations.

That universities have a social role is widely accepted, certainly in Western countries where universities maintain data on income, race, gender, and the nationality of students, faculty and staff. Whether or not race or gender-based reservations exist, diversity is a buzzword at world-class institutions. In those cases where universities are seen to be falling behind in achieving or improving diversity, they are flayed for their failings. By including the social responsibilities dimension to determine university rankings, we appear to be shifting focus away from that other central role of the university that of pursuing the cause of high quality education. It is this role that is privileged in the world university rankings and one in which we lag behind.

Another stated reason behind devising India-specific rankings is that our best higher education institutions are narrowly-focused — like the IITs and the IIMs — and cannot compete effectively with universities in other countries which tend to be comprehensive institutions. This is true but world university rankings organisations also prepare subject-wise rankings of departments in which specific departments at the IITs and other institutions do not figure prominently.

Furthermore, what is stopping the IITs, for example, from evolving into comprehensive institutions when most of them occupy hundreds of acres of land? There are plenty of examples, from Singapore and Hong Kong among others, where science and technology-focused universities expanded to become more comprehensive institutions and now count among the top 200 in the world.

It is not quite clear why we need to devise an India-specific rankings scheme. Indeed, we should be worried that we may be found out on parameters of social responsibilities as well since, other than provide reservations in admissions and jobs, we have done precious little to improve the quality of education for those who have access to education, rendering the social responsibilities dimension quite irrelevant. What good is access to education if it does not provide the skills and knowledge necessary for employment?

Pushkar is assistant professor, department of humanities and social sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa.

The views expressed by the author are personal

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