Rankings should be used to increase quality for all

Arun Jaitley, India’s finance minister, announced the creation of a new 'Higher Education Financing Agency', or HEFA, in his budget speech on 29 February. Through this mechanism, he argued, an “enabling regulatory architecture will be provided to 10 public and 10 private institutions to emerge as world-class teaching and research institutions”.

At the same time, the Indian government published its first domestic rankings through the Human Resource Development Ministry. This is not merely a coincidence, according to academics in India, who see the National Institutional Ranking Framework, or NIRF, as the mechanism by which Jaitley and the government will determine who gets the HEFA money.

We argue that given the size, scale and complexity of the Indian higher education system, the policy priority should be to improve overall quality assurance mechanisms. Instead of anchoring NIRF to world-class rankings for a handful of institutions, the policy outcomes should be to increase the accountability and transparency of the overall system.

Financial control

This first year of ranking is rife with several limitations such as limited consultation with and time for institutions to prepare and participate. It reportedly also had several process and methodological challenges related to data collection and verification. This resulted in only about 250 of 740 universities participating in the ranking.

There are concerns related to the use of rankings as a tool for financial control. “It is fairly clear to most higher education institutions that NIRF will act like a stick in the hands of the government,” said Dr Anil Pinto, registrar of Christ University in Bangalore, “with government most likely to use the ranking outcomes for funding and permissions of many kinds.”

He said that, although NIRF participation was officially voluntary, “the repeated communication that the UGC [University Grants Commission] sent to universities meant that vulnerable institutions such as the privately funded universities and fund-starved state universities which are serious about getting more funding from the government had to toe the line”.

A further complication is that if the government uses the NIRF rankings to allocate their funding, they will be piling resources onto some universities that are not necessarily in need.

A source at the Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore, the top-ranked school of management according to NIRF, said that “as far as funding is concerned, the older Institutes of Management (IIMs at Ahmedabad, Calcutta and Bangalore) probably don’t need additional financial support but rather more freedom to decide on their academic pay structures as well as student fees.

"They would be able to attract more faculty as well as fund their own development activities.”

Perhaps most problematic is that HEFA funding would not address the structural changes necessary for any Indian university to improve the quality of the system.

“From my experience, most traditional institutions in India are bogged down by a combination of bureaucracy, accumulated academic baggage (poor hiring choices) and institutional lethargy, all of which may be aggravated by the government,” said Professor Kartik Shanker, director of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment in Bangalore.

“Given that, it may just not seem possible to set up world quality research and teaching institutions, other than by starting them from scratch.”

Accountability and transparency

One overarching question is whether India actually needs 20 world-class institutions at all. We assert that India definitely needs some models of excellence that can create examples of quality and provide the country with the legitimacy it seeks in this arena. However, what India needs more is to measure and improve the competitiveness and quality of all institutions through data-driven accountability and transparency mechanisms.

In his speech on 29 February, Jaitley claimed that developing world-class institutions would “enhance affordable access to high-quality education for ordinary Indians”. But as students of higher education know, the 'trilemma' or 'iron triangle' of mutually conflicting choices between access (scale), quality and cost means that developing world-class institutions in India may actually entail a reduction of access for 'ordinary Indians'.

As the government funnels money into world-class aspirations, it will sacrifice quality or scale in other areas.

In sum, the aim of 20 'world-class' institutions is a myopic policy priority that does not address the real changes Indian higher education needs.

NIRF has serious limitations and it must improve the processes it uses to gain credibility and validity for the rankings. Yet, it is a step forward in enabling accountability through data collection and reporting on parameters of institutional quality. The government should leverage this tool to improve quality of the overall system.

Dr Erich Dietrich is assistant vice president for global programmes at New York University, or NYU, and associate dean of global affairs at NYU Steinhardt. He is a winner of a 2016 Fulbright-Nehru International Education Administrator Award to India. Dr Rahul Choudaha is the principal researcher and CEO of DrEducation, LLC, a global higher education research and consulting firm. He is also the principal coach of, a social venture focused on advancing global citizenship and intercultural competence. Follow him @DrEducationBlog.