To appear in the March-April, 2015 issue of IETE Technical Review.
Before 1983, until the first university ranking in the world was published in U.S. News and World Report, the term “University rankings” was not taken very seriously. But more than a quarter century later, after the first university rankings were announced, India now keenly wants to be part of these rankings. What has changed during these years? With growing economic developments and increasing aspirations, the Indian public seek to know the inside functioning and operational efficiency of our higher educational institutes and universities. Since resources to the universities are made available through tax-payer’s money, it is also the responsibility of the universities to let the public know what is being achieved with these resources. The fact that Indian universities do not find their place among the top universities in the world has become a cause of intense public debate.
But the question is: should we compete to get a ‘respectable’ place in the world rankings or should we have a ranking system suitable to our country? Any ranking system we adopt should enhance the credibility of universities in the eyes of the general public leading to increased public confidence and trust. The Indian universities, like the other 15000 universities in the world, have national obligations to perform. One of the important commitments of a university is to provide equal access to higher education even if the university fails to get into the “global rankings” . However, there is enough evidence to show that higher education has of late become a preserve of the elite. Global rankings have exacerbated the inequalities in deciding who can access good quality higher education [1 – 3]. Let us briefly see what has gone wrong.
We have several widely known ranking systems such as (i) Times Higher Education World University (THE) Rankings, (ii) QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) World University Rankings, (iii) Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), also known as the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Ranking, and (iv) Webometrics Ranking. All these ranking methods do have serious shortcomings . Even the most popular ranking schemes cover only less than 5 % of all the universities in the world. THE and QS rankings give heavy weightage to reputational ranking through online surveys often with a strong bias towards English speaking countries. ARWU and THE use data from Thompson Reuters while QS uses data from Scopus (which is from Elsevier) making these rankings rely heavily on publications and citations in science based journals. Humanities and social sciences remain unrepresented in most ranking schemes. Universities with a main focus in these two areas, therefore, do not figure in the rankings. Rankings are also affected by the ability of universities to garner large endowments exceeding even the national budgets of some countries. The presence of Nobel laureates and Field medal winners who publish in the so-called elite science journals further influence these ratings.
Surprisingly, educational experience and learning outcomes of the students are not surveyed by most ranking schemes. This is a major omission since education is the primary objective of the universities . They completely ignore if the teaching-learning practices in a university are of the highest order while its professors are researchers and unpretentious experts in a wide variety of fields including science. The global ranking schemes, therefore, only manufacture a fancy perception about a university’s reputation rather than represent its true functioning. This makes higher education a sellable commodity to the advantage of a few elite.
We tend to forget that assigning a numerical rank to a university, to measure its performance unfortunately deflects our attention from a university’s fundamental function i.e. education. Periodically, a university’s functioning should be audited. But this should be only to ensure quality of performance and accountability. Evaluation of a university should not degenerate into a single number for public display . Even Indian media has started releasing the rankings of Indian universities but frequently with hilarious outcomes. That is because most media personnel neither understand the nuances of mathematics involved in ranking  nor appreciate the complexity of diversities intrinsic to the functioning of a university.
Why is it not desirable to assign a number to a university’s performance? Well, it reinforces the false impression that universities are like corporate entities who are expected to satisfy the consumer interests. Ranking, together with marketing and public relations, has made global higher education a marketable commodity . As a result, by 2025, nearly eight million students are expected to study outside their countries. A bulk of these students come from China, India and other neighbouring countries. India is the second largest exporter of students to foreign universities. The beneficiaries are invariably the universities in English speaking countries .
It is estimated that to be in the “world class” of the rankings, a university’s budget must be 1.5 to 2 billion US dollars per year which is beyond the means of many universities in countries like India . University rankings are also mired in controversies due to the fact that many a times, rankings could be influenced by made-up, dicey and false data. When we trust the rankings, rather than professional integrity and peer regulation to evaluate a university’s excellence, this can lead to undesirable results. We must remember that “when universities openly and increasingly pursue commercialization, it powerfully legitimizes and reinforces the pursuit of economic self-interest by students and contributes to the widespread sense among them that they are in college solely to gain career skills and credentials” , .
University rankings also have affected the administrators, parents and students on ‘what we choose to do, who we try to be, and what we think of ourselves’ in higher education , . The use of rankings is now increasingly being seen by many countries as an indirect way of pressurising the universities into “a costly and high-stakes academic arms race” instead of focussing more on the immediate developmental and social needs of a country . Rankings have simply become aids to the potential ‘customers’ who have financial resources to access these highly ranked elite universities . University rankings in general are not neutral methods. They are influenced by politico-ideological technologies to exclude or include a university into the elite club. Rankings, therefore, assign a hierarchized social identity to the university. This substitution of quest for excellence by ultra-eliteness results in a greater stratification and concentration of resources forcing the less fortunate universities into an un-recoverable cycle of disadvantage .
This makes the global university rankings notoriously untrustworthy and unsuitable for countries like India. Therefore, even before India thinks of getting into global university rankings, it needs to develop a credible and transparent ranking system which reflects India’s social and national requirements. What are these requirements?
We should recall that universities are public-interest entities . Public trust in a university and its reputation, therefore, depend on the social impact the university makes. Social impact is directly related to the quality of the talent or skill training provided to the students in a university who will in turn become the back bone of the work force. India today requires a huge skilled work force. How well are our universities prepared to meet this challenge? To give an example, nearly a million students write the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE) every year to try their luck in getting admission into post-graduate education. However, on an average, only about 15 – 17 % of the candidates qualify in this exam each year. This is a clear indication of the poor quality of educational training they have received in their undergraduate level courses. Our universities have largely failed in talent training and skill development. Their indifference has only made their moral standing weaker in public perception.
We should not lose sight of the fact that a university is not a commercial entity but a place of higher learning, conducting teaching and research at the undergraduate and postgraduate level . Therefore, it is imperative that India should develop an India specific ranking system, which is both transparent and reliable, to assess the performance of Indian universities. This should be based on, for example, (i) the care universities provide in making higher education accessible even to the most under privileged, (ii) the skill or talent training that a university imparts to the students so that they become agents of social and economic transformation, (iii) how well the universities encourage the ability to think in an unorthodox fashion and carry out original research in different fields, (iv) the ability of a university to develop technologies relevant to the local social needs and human development, and so on.
Every few years, drawing from our experience and from other countries which are not in the business of commercializing higher education, we should keep improving our ranking system to advance the academic excellence of the Indian universities. If we focus on the core objectives of our universities i.e. teaching and research, it will not be too far away when we will be talking about the excellence of Indian universities rather than their rankings. When Indian universities become known for their excellence, they should be in a position to attract students and best intellects from across the world, in turn improving their global prestige and recognition. If we can transform our higher educational institutes into great universities for their knowledge and social commitment, what else do we want? Do you agree with me?
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