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India’s obsession with university rankings

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In Brief

In India it has become fashionable to bemoan the poor global rankings of higher education institutes. In the three widely regarded global university rankings of 2013, the Shanghai Ranking, QS World University Ranking and Times Higher Education (THE) Ranking, India has no institute in the top 200. Only one Indian institute figured in the Shanghai Ranking’s top 500, while five made the top 400 in both the QS and THE rankings.


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The academic community of India ought to be bemused by the shrill pitch of this discussion, because they know first-hand how deep the policy rot in Indian higher education is. And for the same reason, academia in India will be hoping against hope that this time meaningful actions, beyond rhetoric, are initiated.

Unfortunately, going by past trends, one cannot be hopeful. Various internal and external studies have repeatedly pointed out that India’s quality of education, from primary to higher education, is on a downward spiral.

The need for quality education in India has never been greater. India is home to the highest number of young-age population in the world today. In absolute numbers, India’s under 15-years age-group population, at 410 million, is 3 per cent less than that of the entire developed world (199 million) and China (230 million) put together. Since the beginning of this century, it has seen a massive expansion in higher education providers, and an expansion in primary education over the last couple of decades. These expansions stressed quantity, however. While primary education reached near universal enrollment, it was simultaneously near the bottom of global standards. In higher education, at around 20 per cent enrollment, it still remains much lower than the global average.

India’s poor performance in the age of global rankings should have come as no surprise. The alarm bells have been ringing for decades, as educationalist Altbach noted on university reform in India back in 1972. The warnings, however, have failed to elicit the necessary regulatory clarity and forward-looking policy reform encompassing all higher educational institutes. Attempts to improve the higher education sector have also been characterised by over-regulation, which have proved counter-productive, particularly to the serious and innovation-oriented institutes in the private domain.

Notably, India’s top-heavy system has fewer universities and many more university-affiliated colleges, compared to the United States or China. Around 70 per cent of these higher educational institutes (catering for about 60 per cent of the enrolled students in India) operate in the private domain. Privatisation of primary schools has now also started to spread widely, despite the country’s low income levels.

At affiliated colleges it is common to see curriculum, courses and tests developed at the university level. Affiliated college faculty members merely deliver the course, across the hundreds of affiliated colleges that the university may have. These different groups of faculty members seldom coordinate among themselves — something that in any top-ranking university is unthinkable. A similar lack of basic rigor is also seen in the case of research scholars, pursuing PhDs in distance modes, with outsourced academic supervisors.

Moreover, higher education institutes in India, including the famed Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), have primarily been teaching centres. Only recently has the trend in a few IITs been changing to focus more on research; but the volume target of PhDs is stretching the system beyond limits (the 2020 target is to achieve  10 times the present number of PhD students).

The minimum hours of teaching most faculty members need to perform, as per the University Grants Commission, a statutory organisation for university education, varies from 14 to 16 hours a week. Compared to global standards, this places a considerable strain on academic staff, keeping in mind the litany of other teaching-related work that adds to this number too. Most institutes in India do not have the separate categories of teaching and research staff. The vast majority of India’s academic community also do not enjoy the luxury of engaging the assistance of research associates/scholars.

The quality of secondary education in India has also been declining. In the 2009 PISA test, India secured the 73rd position out of 74 nations; and surprisingly, India didn’t even participate in the next PISA tests in 2012 (although global participation in 2012 was higher). The quality of primary and secondary education is a fundamental educational concern for any nation, because it affects the largest number of future citizens. Concern over basic quality for the 180 million enrolled in the primary, and more in secondary level, rather than the few odd-thousands of students with ranked universities among overall 26 million enrolled in higher education, should be the bigger issue in India.

An incoherent signal is thus being sent by the nation. An obsession with higher education ranking has dominated discourse, even leading to discussions with THE for the inclusion of India-specific parameters. But in foundation stages from primary to secondary education, the nation ignores various internal and external quality measures, and the sector is languishing.

Traditionally, India has often misplaced its priorities, trying to have a Wall Street before building main streets. Over the 1950s–80s, when South Korea and China focused heavily on primary education, India tried to balance both primary and higher education. Not surprisingly, India failed to achieve universal enrollment by the 1980s at the primary level, and its higher education standards did not improve significantly. A positive feedback loop, from primary to higher education, further enhances both, as now seen in South Korea and China.

Results suggest that the Indian model simply is not sustainable. Autonomy and appropriate-governance have been key success factors of higher education globally. The IITs, who prominently feature among Indian institutes finding a place in the global league, traditionally have enjoyed more autonomy than any other Indian universities. Had IITs enjoyed autonomy closer to the level that leading global universities do, their performance could have been much better. The autonomy for affiliated private colleges, however, is practically nil.

Joseph de Maistre observed that every nation gets the government that it deserves. It might be said too that every nation gets the education system that it deserves. Unless India adopts structural reforms in the education sector, by focusing more on primary and secondary education, and by allowing quality private participation at higher education, with autonomy and uniform rules for all higher education players, the state of education in India will continue to languish; and present opportunities to bring prosperity through education will pass.

Ranjit Goswami is Dean at the Institute of Management Technology (IMT), Nagpur.

3 responses to “India’s obsession with university rankings”

  1. In my opinion rankings become useful only when the universities stand on a comparable base. Indian universities by their very strategy of maximizing financial success have willfully abandoned themselves from research. This makes them not comparable with global top 100 universities whose primary focus is knowledge creation. So in a nutshell, our universities can at the best be ranked nationally.

  2. One of the major constraints in higher education has been the quality of teachers who become part of the fraternity only by virtue of certain degrees acquired by him/her as a student.introduction of NET/SLET was a welcome effort to check on the quality of a teacher. However,this has been substantially diluted over the years. People who fail to qualify these tests can still be a teacher if he/she posses PhD/MPhil,even though many a times the quality of the thesis work remains doubtful. There is significant emphasis on the quality of teachers globally (e.g. in Finland, a regular top ranked country in PISA, only those, who have consistently being among 90 percentile as a student, can apply for teaching position). Unfortunately, in India we have not followed this practice and ended up with mediocre faculty who can deliver only mediocre result.

  3. India has tons of talent and hard working people that are willing to learn, grow and succeed in the World. Which is a good thing but it doesn’t have to come at a price of losing its own originality, culture and values. Indian universities need to affiliate themselves with private companies as well and hire the best of the best not only management, engineering, medicine but law, social sciences, religions, languages, natural sciences and philosophy. A lot of PHDs are good and know the theory but many don’t know how to teach and get their students motivated towards learning. Not just having them cram for an exam. Life in itself shall be treated as an exam and how to cope with it, learn and pratice is biggest challenge that would face Indians in this century because they are adopting so many western ideas. Drugs, alcohol, sex, crime and break up of the traditional Indian family is happening because of adaptation to many of the western ideas and it will haunt India and there is no institution preparing Indian children on how to face these problems. Sadly corruption creeps in and only the ones that cheat are hired and deserving ones are ignored.

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