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Not the best in their class

The absence of Indian universities in global rankings points to a deeper rot in the sector. HT writes.

india Updated: Sep 05, 2011 21:19 IST

The season of university rankings has begun. The QS World University Rankings and the Academic Ranking of World Universities have been among the first off the blocks. But an array of others will come out before the West’s academic year begins.

Along with these two surveys, the Times Higher Education list will also be watched closely. There is rarely much change in the top 20 institutions. And even less controversy — these are the reigning academic brands of the world. The real churn lies in the 200 institutions that follow.

But one thing does not change: Indian universities and institutions of higher education never make it to the top 100 and rarely even the top 200.

The latest QS ratings are no different: the highest rated Indian university is the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi and comes in at a lowly 218. It is telling that almost all the dozen or so ranking systems agree on the mediocrity of Indian universities.

University ratings, it is sometimes said, are like making lists of the best works of art. Educational institutions are each unique and, more importantly, the requirements of the students who attend them are highly personal.

But the rankings use indices that are commonsensical — reputation among academicians, student-faculty ratios, infrastructure, quality and quantity of publications.

Similar measures are used by the Indian government to determine accreditation of domestic institutions. The human resources development ministry is known to criticise such ratings.

But its grumblings are probably driven by an unwillingness to accept that the ministry’s tertiary education record has been mediocre and its mindset regarding this crucial area parochial and unimaginative.

Indians take pride in their best universities, especially the IITs and the Indian Institutes of Management. There are now a number of outside assessments which argue that their greatness lies mostly in their ability to select the best and the brightest of India’s student population.

More telling is that their productivity is almost criminally low — the IITs collectively graduate less than 3,500 students and do almost no original research.

The number of universities who achieve even IIT levels of quality should be expanding by leaps and bounds to keep up with India’s rising student population.

If anything, many universities seem to be regressing thanks to poor administration, faculty who cannot be dismissed, social engineering demands and political interference.

World class tertiary educational institutions are more than a matter of pride. Without them India’s hopes to maintain high rates of economic growth, to sustain its accomplishments in the field of technology, produce a competitive manufacturing base and cash in on its “demographic dividend” will be impossible.

Rankings are not everything. But they are a signal that there is something rotten in the state of higher education in India.