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Does India need rankings?

If the country wants to be a part of the global dialogue, it cannot ignore university rankings. It has to play by the rules and focus on areas it needs to improve upon

education Updated: May 14, 2014 14:56 IST
Harini Sriram

There has been a lot of debate on the importance of university rankings; while some question the methodologies used to rank institutions, others believe that India has to effectively address the reasons why its universities are struggling to make the cut. At a recent panel discussion titled ‘Do we need rankings?’ held at the Capital, prominent speakers raised important points on the challenges and limitations that are specific to Indian universities. The discussion was held by the Indian Centre for Assessment and Accreditation (ICAA) and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) as part of the unveiling of the QS University Rankings: Asia 2014.

Mohandas Pai, chairman, ICAA, set the tone for the discussion by emphasising that Indians live in a globalised world and cannot afford to ignore rankings anymore. “Indian universities cannot exist in a cocoon and work in isolation. We have a rich intellectual culture and we need to engage with the rule-setters, participate in this battle of ideas and benchmark our own progress,” he said.

Making a strong case for rankings, Dr R Natarajan, former director, IIT-Madras and former chairman, AICTE said, “Why do we participate in the Olympics or any other event? It’s because we want to showcase what we have, and be a part of the global dialogue. Similarly, we cannot ignore university rankings and their effect. We have to play by the rules and focus on areas that we need to improve on.”

While there was a consensus on the relevance and importance of university rankings, most speakers stressed on the need for policy changes from government-instituted bodies. Professor Sudha Pai of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) said that although universities (like JNU) are producing quality students, they are grappling with issues such as lack of good infrastructure, space and funds.

“We need greater economy as bodies such as University Grants Commission (UGC) are stifling our progress. We have some of the best faculty and a strong research-driven academic structure; yet, our hands are tied, as we are not authorised to make our own decisions on a number of key aspects,” she said. She added that though the university is not against rankings, these practical mundane issues make it difficult for the university to participate in global rankings.

Agreeing that the challenge is largely within, Professor K Ramnarayan, VC, Manipal University, said, “You have to stay in the system to fight it; you cannot run away.” Professor HA Ranganath, director, NAAC (National Assessment and Accreditation Council) said that structural changes and innovation in policy-making is crucial. “It is sad that no party has said anything concrete about higher education in their election manifestos,” he pointed out. Urging ranking agencies to think ahead, Narayanan Ramaswamy, partner and head, education, KPMG, said that the onus is on the agencies to think of the future and include other key parameters to stay relevant.

One of the key challenges that ranking agencies face with respect to Indian universities is transparency of data, said Richard Everitt, director, education, British Council India. “India is really the most difficult country to extract data from! In UK, for instance, universities have a good data-gathering mechanism; in India, though, it is a major roadblock,” he added.

Natarajan agreed that transparency is an issue in Indian universities. “It is in our own interests that we must be transparent and more forthcoming with data. Countries like South Korea, for instance, have progressed in the rankings because they had strong government-driven action plans. We have ignored rankings for too long, but now the president himself has acknowledged the importance of global rankings and has made it mandatory for institutions to have a nodal officer to collate information,” he said.

All speakers agreed that public and private sectors should work together to ensure that Indian universities figure among the top institutions in the world. Mohandas Pai urged institutions to take the lead, identify star students and offer them scholarships.

“We are still a feudal country and it reflects in the way most of our institutions function. We need to put students at the heart of everything, not the institutions. We owe it to our students and to our country to compete witht he best universities in the world,” he said.

It is sad that no party has said anything concrete about higher education in their election manifestos. structural changes and innovations in policy-making is crucial
HA Ranganath, director, NAAC