How to climb the international university rankings

In this season of university and other competitive rankings it is timely to consider the performance of the two most populous nations on earth, India and China, as they look to further develop their economies, not just in sheer size, but as innovation and knowledge powerhouses.

First, both countries fare relatively well, especially China, in the latest Global Innovation Index. China comes in at 25th in the world out of 128 nations and India 66th, with performances in the human capital and research sub-category either roughly on a par with or exceeding overall performance – China is 29th in this sub-category and India 63rd. This suggests that investments in human capital are beginning to pay off.

For India, what is noteworthy is that it is eighth in the world on graduates in science and engineering (figures for China are not available), although 87th in the world on overall tertiary enrolments, compared to China’s 78th place.

Certainly, among policy-makers in India, as in other countries, the link between science and engineering and the knowledge economy is understood. Moreover, science and engineering do carry prestige and a number of Indian institutes of science and technology possess some core strengths and capabilities.

However, the relatively weak overall ranking for tertiary education enrolment does suggest that lifting India’s gross enrolment ratio to meet the needs of the future economy is a key challenge. Access and opportunity, including especially females and disadvantaged groups, must be part and parcel of this.

Further, in recognising that science and engineering graduates matter, it should not be forgotten that arts and other disciplines can play a key role in innovation and in shaping new ways of doing and thinking.


More broadly though, being eighth in the world on a volume measure for science and engineering graduates, given the pool of available people, does not necessarily say much about quality, the ability of graduates to find meaningful jobs or research capability, among other things.

This is where a forensic examination of university rankings comes in. Drawing on the Times Higher Education or THE World University Rankings, we find that in the latest ranking there are 31 Indian institutions ranked out of 980 (expanded from 800 in the previous year in which India had 17 ranked institutions). From having 2.1% of globally ranked universities last year, India advanced to 3.2% in the latest rankings.

This compares with China which progressed from 4.6% to 5.3% in a year (from 37 institutions to 52). Slowly but surely India is making inroads into being among the ranked universities in the world, but clearly to a lesser extent than China.

The best and the rest

Drilling down within the THE rankings reveals some interesting findings. India is inching towards the upper reaches of the rankings. The Indian Institute of Science, the best ranked institution, is now ranked in THE between 201-250 in the world, up from its 251-300th place the year before. Being inside the top 200 is generally considered a significant benchmark so the Indian Institute of Science is approaching this destination.

However, close to 75% of Indian institutions are in the 600+ category, some way from the upper reaches. There seems to be an absence of a middle tier of institutions – those institutions that are solid performers in the 300-450 range. This reflects the bifurcated nature of Indian institutions – some core strength surrounded by run-of-the-mill institutions, although, to be fair, being included in the rankings is not something to be sneezed at.

Raising the performance across the sector in quality and innovation and addressing the gaps between the best and the rest remain key challenges for India.

Some contrasts can be drawn with China. First, its best really are in the big league – Peking University and Tsinghua University are at 29th and 35th place respectively. Four institutions are inside the top 200.

Second, China appears to have a more even distribution of ranked institutions with representation across most groupings, although, like India, there is an absence of institutions in the 300-400 range and there is a preponderance of institutions in the lower reaches.

The Indian Institute of Science

The Indian Institute of Science, India’s best performer in the rankings, has scores of less than 50 out of 100 for nearly all of the key variables that underpin the THE rankings (it has a teaching metric score of 50.1 which is its best result), with a particularly poor score on international outlook (18 out of 100).

India’s higher education system is simply not internationally oriented, be that because of capacity constraints in attracting overseas students, quality concerns, regulatory issues or more general livability factors. To connect more fully to the vast and deep global flows of knowledge, India’s higher education system needs to be significantly more internationally oriented.

One further point is telling. The Indian Institute of Science is a small institute with only 3,318 students and only one undergraduate programme – the Bachelor of Science Research Degree, as indicated in THE. Perhaps there is something to be said for a focused effort in building specialisation and reputation rather than attempting to be “all things to all people”.

A future model for Indian higher education could perhaps centre around networks of focused, specialised institutions, which share knowledge and collaborate on pressing economic and social issues, and which reach out, inform and influence the wider set of institutions in India through knowledge transfer and academic and researcher mobility.

Dr Anand Kulkarni is a consultant and principal advisor at Victoria University, Australia. Kulkarni is working on a book, India and the Knowledge Economy: Performance, perils and prospects, due to be published by Springer in 2017.