How Badly Do India’s Universities Need To Chase World Rankings?

Prof. Pushkar of BITS Pilani discusses whether India’s higher education sector should focus on chasing world university rankings.

AsianScientist (Feb. 3, 2014) – Given the massive popularity and growing influence of world university rankings, it is easy to forget that the very first such rankings – the Academic Ranking of World Universities – were produced by China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University as recently as 2003.

Over the past decade, international rankings of universities, by Times Higher Education (THE), Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) and, of course, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, have not only become a routine annual affair but are also treated as a report card on the state and status of higher education institutions in countries across the world.

In India, world university rankings make big news, certainly in the English media. This is largely because no Indian university ranks in the world’s top 200 institutions. In THE’s 2013 rankings, Panjab University placed between 226-250 and four Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs)- those at Delhi, Kanpur, Kharagpur and Roorkee – between 351-400.

The failure of even fairly well-known and internationally reputed institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) to be placed among the world’s top 100 or 200 institutions has started to rankle people. There is a general sentiment that the absence of Indian universities among the world’s best shows the country in poor light.

Government officials, including the president and the prime minister, have more than once highlighted the poor standing of Indian universities and called for improvements in the quality of higher education.

Others, in particular some of the leaders of elite institutions such as the IITs and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) have questioned the methodology used by global ranking organizations and challenged the relevance of their findings for Indian institutions.

Some have gone so far as to claim that the entire university rankings process is a “money game” based on the “paying capabilities of the institutions.”

World rankings and India’s higher education

With the university rankings season now behind (and ahead of) us, it is perhaps a good time to assess the importance of world university rankings to India’s higher education system.

First, there is no doubt that Indian universities need to play ‘catch up’ in order to place more higher education institutions in the top 400 or 500 in the world. It is particularly confounding that a nation which has sent a successful mission to Mars does not boast of one single institution in the top 100. “Not even one!” sounds like a real downer. Whether one considers the country a wannabe “major” power or an “emerging” power (or not), it is still surprising that India’s universities do not make the grade.

Second, what should be a matter of great concern is not just the inability of Indian universities to break into world rankings over the last decade or so but the rise of several universities across Asia to world-ranked status during the same period.

It is also rather curious that the “lost decades” of India’s higher education – the 1980s and the 1990s – coincided with a period when the country registered high rates of economic growth. The neglect of higher education finally ended when the National Knowledge Commission drew attention to a “quiet crisis” in its 2006 report.

Since then, while there has been some progress, India’s Asian neighbors have made far greater advances.

Third, even as the continued success of Indian-origin academics and intellectuals in the West and the East enhances India’s “soft power,” the failure of Indian universities to break into world rankings undermines it. As Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, once put it, “soft power” refers to those intangible aspects of a nation – whether culture, values, education or something else- which other “nations admire and want to emulate.” It is distressing that there is little to admire let alone emulate in India’s higher education sector.

Beyond these concerns, however, a bigger issue looms large – the overall quality of education at the 700 odd universities and 35,000 plus colleges across the country.

It is quite alright to worry about the absence of Indian universities in the top 100 but surely a bigger concern is the poor quality of education at a majority of higher education institutions across the country. This is not a state secret. According to the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), only 179 universities and 5,224 colleges currently have valid accreditation. Of these, 62 per cent of universities and 90 per cent of colleges are categorized as average or below average. Continue reading… >>>

Pushkar is a faculty member at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) Pilani-Goa.

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