Debate over international rankings and HE challenges

Following the poor showing of Indian higher education institutions in three of the most quoted global rankings of universities, India has begun lobbying ranking agencies on how to improve country’s position in international league tables.

Only three Indian institutions appeared in the global top 400 of the Times Higher Education, or THE, World University Rankings for 2012-13. The best was the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, at 226-250.

The country also performs poorly in the other two major rankings, produced by China’s Shanghai Jiaotong University and Quacquarelli Symonds, or QS.

“It is a sobering thought for us that not one Indian university figures in the top 200 universities of the world today,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told a conference of Indian vice-chancellors last February.

It has sparked off a debate over whether outside rankings drawn up by foreign for-profit companies should influence higher education policy – India has previously said it will only allow in foreign institutions that are ranked highly in global league tables – or whether rankings provide a basis for important improvements to the sector and therefore engaging with rankings organisations is important.

Some experts warn that rankings should not be dismissed as irrelevant, and that India’s higher education policies – including the funding structure, lack of research, or lack of focus on quality – are responsible for the country’s poor performance. They see rankings as a wake-up call, an opportunity to bring in improvements.

However, others argue that India’s higher education system must cater first to the current educational needs of the country.

“India is too large a country with a large number of aspiring students and we cannot make the mistake of comparing ourselves with funding-intensive institutions across the world,” said PC Jain, principal of Sri Ram College of Commerce in New Delhi.

“However, we can select a handful of institutions and focus on integrating undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, research, and citations together,” he suggested.

Differing methodologies

Some academics feel that international rankings should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Professor Gautam Gupta, of the department of economics at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, considered one of India’s leading universities, said global rankings were not ‘sacred’. “There are several global rankings. Who is to say which ranking is the most authentic?” said Gupta.

“The criteria and methodology of each ranking agency is different. They are all measuring different things and often several [of the indicators] are unreliable. There are few reputed rankings and even those cannot be used across all Indian institutions,” Gupta said.

Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States, has also argued that a majority of rankings are sponsored by magazines – and are mainly aimed at increasing their circulation figures – or by other for-profit organisations, and that many have flawed methodologies.

According to Altbach, the rankings produced by Shanghai Jiaotong University and the THE rankings are methodologically respectable but limited in what they measure, and thus provide an incomplete perspective on higher education and on the universities ranked.

“For India, or other developing countries, to obsess about the rankings is a mistake. There may be lessons, but not rules,” Altbach said.

Comparison with international benchmarks

Several Indian magazines rank Indian colleges and universities. However, the criteria are often different from global benchmarks.

For instance, a leading magazine ranked ‘India’s Best Colleges 2012’ based on the reputation of colleges, quality of academic input, student care, infrastructure and job prospects.

“Compared to global trends, our record in developing comprehensive universities is abysmal,” said Deepak Pental, a professor of genetics at the University of Delhi. The key features of the top global universities were missing from Indian institutions, he said.

Almost all of the top global institutions are comprehensive universities that teach and research the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, and have strong engineering, medicine, law and management programmes.

“World-class universities have a distinguished history of research. Others, mostly in Asia, have raised their research standards in the last 20 to 30 years,” said Pental. “None of the Indian universities fulfil these criteria.”

India has many institutions, with hundreds of affiliated or attached undergraduate colleges that they must manage, and specialised institutes like the Indian institutes of management or IIMs, and Indian institutes of technology, or IITs.

India also has many research-only institutions that have almost no undergraduate or postgraduate teaching – many of these are not included in international university rankings.

While funding for research has increased over the years, in India only about 10% of government research funding goes to universities.

Indian institutions do not perform well against several international ranking variables. For instance, the THE ranks universities using teaching (30% of weight), research (30%), citations of research (30%), industry income (2.5%) and international outlook (7.5%).

Among Indian science and technology institutions, the five oldest IITs have the highest average citations for published research papers after the Indian Institute of Science, according to a 2009 analysis by researchers Gangan Prathap and BM Gupta.

Yet each IIT faculty member on average publishes only one research paper a year, compared to six per faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.

Towards an Indian ranking?

In May, the government held a two-day policy dialogue attended by leading Indian institutions and policy-makers and led by the British Council, THE and Thomson Reuters (which provides the data for the THE rankings), to explain existing global rankings and help the institutions understand how to improve their poor showing.

Phil Baty, THE rankings editor, said his organisation was willing to explore the possibility of a separate India-only ranking, which would look at leading research-intensive Indian institutions that aspire to world class-standards.

This could be done without any modifications to THE’s methodology, or with minor changes such as giving less weight to publication in indexed journals where publication cultures and outputs may be different from the typical, established global research university.

“At present, even some of the most competitive of India’s institutions are not making the upper reaches of the global rankings. So in order to help them better understand their performance against global standards, the meeting discussed the possibility of a bespoke analysis for India,” Baty told University World News.

“We would not seek to judge the highly diverse Indian higher education sector on a single hierarchical list using the same range of performance indicators,” Baty added.

He agreed that for the majority of India’s institutions, a focus on local priorities should continue, including expanding learning opportunities to underrepresented groups and working with local communities.

But some institutions must embrace internationalisation wholeheartedly. “India needs institutions producing research with a global impact that pushes forward the boundaries of understanding,” he argued.

A senior Indian education ministry official said: “Just saying that the global criteria do not suit the Indian context is not correct. Our institutions are failing in global competitiveness. There is no harm is seeking the help of the ranking agencies to see how we can improve our standing.”

The main challenge for India would be to ensure the proper management of institutional data, to allow for proper global benchmarking and analysis, Baty said.

A lack of transparency and difficulties in accessing data are major problems for Indian higher education. Colleges and universities do not have mandatory disclosure requirements in areas including fees, expenses, funding, faculty salaries, research output and citation and placement records. Many are also unwilling to share information openly.

And it is far from clear how a separate Indian ranking would solve the fundamental challenges being faced by Indian institutions, including the challenge of quality of research.