Can an Indian university occupy a top spot in global rankings?

ByNandan Nawn
Jun 22, 2021 05:26 PM IST

Ranking follows from the scores obtained against a variety of criterion, aggregated using a set of weights. Improving performance in each criteria boosts the score, but weights will determine their relative effectiveness in augmenting it

The director of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Delhi recently came up with a six-point diagnosis analysing the performance of his institution (185th position) in the QS 2022 ranking. These included improving “reputation” with more outreach, finding IIT-quality faculty, policy challenges to recruit international faculty and logistical issues in admitting more international students, among others.

Representational image. (Getty Images/iStockphoto) PREMIUM
Representational image. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Ranking follows from the scores obtained against a variety of criterion, aggregated using a set of weights. Improving performance in each criteria boosts the score, but weights will determine their relative effectiveness in augmenting it.

In the backdrop of the recent rankings and the debate it has stirred, the question is what explains the performance of Indian universities in global rankings, and whether there are ways to improve their position.

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The disjunct between the domestic and international

Parameters and weights differ among indigenous — National Institution Ranking Framework (NIRF) and National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) — and global — QS and Times Higher Education (THE) — accreditation and ranking agencies.

For example, global rankings consider matters related to infrastructure, governance, and other such as given, unlike the indigenous ones. Having more classrooms with LCD, smart board, Wi-Fi/LAN, more teachers using ICT-enabled tools, a code of ethics for research or effective and efficient functioning of the institutional bodies will improve the scores only in the NAAC accreditation and not in rankings including NIRF. However, a low grade awarded by NAAC can have serious implications for a university, including courses allowed to be offered and hence in financial terms. It follows that it is impossible for an institution to ignore it, unless self-financed.

In addition, the weight given to “international aspects” and “reputation” by the global ranking agencies are far higher than the indigenous ones. It may require coordinated efforts of many to improve reputation but this will mostly be internal to an institution. On the other hand, factors that control international students and faculty primarily belong to the domains external to the institution, including restrictions on permission to travel due to regulations and/or triggered by disasters such as a pandemic.

It may not be an exaggeration to state that the priorities in the indigenous and global ones are worlds apart. For an Indian university, catering to the requirements of all accreditation and ranking agencies warrants allocating considerable resources. For a resource-constrained university, this can mean some serious trade-offs.

It is not common to find administrative divisions in most Indian universities dedicated to accreditation and rankings, which is a common practice in the universities that rank in top 100 globally. May be this paucity of resources is responsible for the fact that barely 3.5% Indian universities (35 of 981; central, state, private and deemed together, including 8 IITs and IISc and one IIIT)) find a place in the QS 2022 rankings. Interestingly, while the average of last NAAC score obtained by 24 of them is a creditable 3.37 out of 4, none of them are in the top 500. This points at an absence of any relation between NAAC and QS.

The way to the top

Arguably, the top five Indian universities individually are worlds apart from the top five universities globally, if we take either criterion-wise or overall score.

But let us consider a hypothetical Indian university with the best scores in each of the six categories obtained by the 35 Indian universities. In this case, the weighted or overall score is 62.6, a notch above 92nd-placed University of Leeds. In short, it is possible to reach the top 100, provided universities who aspire to improve their rankings globally agree to collaborate and share their best practices and tools and tricks for others to replicate.

The lack of non-Indian students and faculty is a real constraint. Only two universities have managed to reach a double digit figure on these counts, and that too on only one and not both counts. In fact, these aspects are not recognised in the section titled “Internationalisation” in the new National Education Policy (p. 39) unlike Basic Infrastructure and Facilities (section 13.2), Optimal Learning Environments and Support for Students (section 12) or Transforming the Regulatory System of Higher Education (section 18), which are common concerns among the Indian universities.

In recent times, some exceptions have been made on admitting non-Indian students and recruiting non-Indian faculty for institutions declared as Institution of Eminence. But, ground reports do not indicate full realisation of the intended consequences.

Maybe a license raj still exists (or a perception that it exists) for potential non-Indian students and faculty. There are simple means to identify the knots, evaluate their strengths and identify ways to solve them. Collective action on the part of universities with the same goal and facing the same challenge, can offer some possibilities.

This will warrant aspiring universities to exchange their policies, processes, protocols and practices towards improved scores across global ranking agencies. Indeed, it is not the proverbial rocket science as different Indian universities have achieved quite a decent score against each criterion at least in QS 2022.

The Government of India can take the lead in facilitating this. It may not involve high out-of-pocket costs, but certainly will require dedication, sincerity and honest efforts by a couple of education administrators under a decisive and visionary national leadership, that has repeatedly expressed a desire for India to be a global leader in education.

To be sure, there are issues of transparency, for which seven IITs decided not to participate in THE rankings. Similar issues exists with the way perception or outlook are captured across rankings or the way scores are awarded in quantitative metrics by NAAC (conversion formula between percentage and score is not in public domain).

But these are second level issues — of foremost importance is how to share and co-produce knowledge in a country which is not really known for a thriving accreditation culture in its universities. A starting point can be making lectures on accreditation and ranking processes a mandatory part of Orientation programmes organised by Academic Staff Colleges and Universities.

Nandan Nawn teaches Economics at TERI School of Advanced Studies, New Delhi ( This article is drawn from his experience as Coordinator of its Internal Quality Assurance Cell and Fulbright-Nehru International Education Administrators Seminar

The views expressed are personal

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