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Still a rank outsider

Scoring low: Is India ignoring quality in its efforts to make higher education more broad-based? Charu Sudan Kasturi writes. See graphics

india Updated: Sep 13, 2010 01:31 IST
Charu Sudan Kasturi

India was considering a fortnight ago the pros and cons of recognising Chinese academic degrees. A proposal to mutually recognise degrees is on the agenda when Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal meets his Chinese counterparts over the coming week.

But even before he left on Friday night, the government had decided that it would like to keep the proposal on hold. The reason — fear of the Chinese swamping India’s growing higher education sector with cheap education of high standards.

Just days after returning from India’s eastern neighbour, Sibal will leave for the US, where he will try and forge collaborations with top American universities such as Yale. The key aims behind such collaborations and inviting top foreign varsities to India include restricting the brain drain and the loss of foreign exchange spent on studies abroad.

The latest QS rankings of world universities — a globally reputed ranking system — published on Monday reaffirm that the government’s fears

concerning both the east and the west may be justified, experts and stakeholders said.

Despite an unprecedented hike in public funding for higher education, Indian universities have not yet started going up the scale of rankings, triggering fresh thinking as to whether the country’s strategy in the sector may need a re-look.

Rankings can be subjective and are unlikely to satisfy many institutions and countries, but India would be “foolish” to ignore them completely, a former education secretary said, requesting anonymity.

“I think the rankings suggest something we in the government itself have been slowly recognising … that our focus on expansion of higher education opportunities may have taken priority over the quality we provide at institutions.”

This recognition has now led the government to form at least four panels —across ministries — to propose roadmaps to suggest strategies to make the country's universities among the best in the world, he pointed out.

The QS rankings since 2005 show that varsities in the US and UK have held on to their traditionally dominant positions. China’s top-ranking institutions may have slipped a bit, but the country has boasted six universities in the top 200 every year.

The same period has coincided with the government increasing the number of IITs from 7 to 15, IIMs from 6 to 13, and central universities from 25 to 40. Never before has the number of these top institutions increased so fast.

But neither the old nor the new institutions have been able to go up the hierarchy and challenge the Chinese, leave alone the US or the UK.

No more than three Indian varsities have figured in the top 200 in a year (in 2005), and subsequent years have seen a fluctuation in this variable between 0 and 2 (see box for details on how these countries fared).

The amount and quality of research at these top institutions is also perceived as far behind their counterparts in the west and China, argued Harvinder Sahni, who offers GRE tutorials. “Our best institutions — like the IITs — are perceived more as good undergraduate colleges. If you observe, the top-ranking universities globally are all research institutions,” Sahni said.

These perceptions make India vulnerable both from the west and the east. Students who “crack” the GRE and get large scholarships, or have adequate financial resources of their own, therefore continue to prefer the US or the UK for higher studies.

Those who don’t have these resources look to China with its better-ranked institutions charging fees comparable to India.

That leaves India with only one real weapon to restrict the number of students headed towards China — the doubt in students’ minds over legitimacy in India of degrees earned there.