Driving positive change through university rankings

With rankings season in full swing, it is a good time to consider how and whether rankings can transform India’s higher education system. Emerging economies are increasingly engaging with rankings as key strategic and promotional tools to attract and retain students and staff and research funding, as well as to enhance their reputation. Rankings and reputation feed off each other.

The impact of rankings on India can be viewed in general and specific terms. At the general level, they enable existing ranked institutions and potential entrants to benchmark themselves against the world’s best, identify strengths and weaknesses and areas for opportunity as well as to ground their aspirations in reality.

For a country like India, the idea is that observing the world’s best can help it confront the challenges of providing mass access to education while enhancing quality and accountability.

India’s large higher education sector is characterised by massive gulfs in quality and reputation between its elite institutions, which are represented in the rankings, and the rest that struggle with quality.

In the recent QS rankings, eight out of 20 ranked Indian institutions (out of 960 in total) were from the premier Indian Institutes of Technology and of Science. The idea is that the ‘missing’ next tier have a lot to learn from the premier institutions, noting, of course, that their missions do vary.


According to a recent survey of Indian students by QS, What Matters to International Students: Focus on India, students in India, like students the world over, “typically perceive rankings as closely correlated to institutional reputation, which they view in turn as a key factor in optimising their future career opportunities”.

Thus understanding in depth what mobile and aspirational Indian students are saying via their assessments of rankings is of value in understanding how to meet the needs of the ultimate stakeholders, students.

Further, for the government of India, international rankings can be an important leveraging tool, linking funding and regulations to performance in rankings. For example, there could be ‘lighter touch’ regulations for universities that are ranked in the main rankings schema.

Another strategic approach could be for India to aim for greater participation in sub-rankings such as the BRICS Rankings or subject rankings as a basis for greater engagement over time with the overall rankings.

The impact of rankings can be pronounced in particular areas. India lags on internationalisation parameters, with a somewhat closed higher education system, at least in terms of inward mobility (international students studying in India).

According to the latest Global Innovation Index, India ranks 102nd out of 127 countries in the world with regard to inward tertiary mobility. The recent QS rankings show India’s best ranked institution as the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. It has only four international staff (out of 466 academic staff in total) and 80 international students, all in postgraduate studies, out of 7,477 students in total.

There is a range of factors involved in India’s relatively weak internationalisation, including capacity constraints, regulatory issues and quality factors across the sector, as well as the absence of strong supporting infrastructure for international students.

As internationalisation features strongly in the university rankings, there is a need to develop a comprehensive internationalisation strategy, which would have as a significant aim the broadening of the international student base.

At present, India’s inward student intake, to the extent that it has any, is dominated by students from neighbouring South Asian countries (for example, Bhutan), and parts of the Middle East and Africa. A more globally oriented higher education system could potentially enhance its academic reputation and vice-versa.

Research performance

Another key way in which India can use rankings to reform its education system is in its research performance. India’s education system suffers from a lack of highly cited research, quality outputs and a largely absent broader ecosystem of research and innovation, linking business and university.

A great deal of India’s high-quality outputs come from its public research bodies, as distinct from its universities. The Leiden Ranking, for example, puts a significant weight on research collaboration domestically while other rankings emphasise international collaboration in research outputs.

If engagement with rankings can be used to encourage transfers of knowledge and the shared information flows that come with collaboration, then the Indian higher education system and the broader economy will benefit.

A further way that the rankings can be leveraged to improve India’s higher education system is through employer reputation, found only in the QS rankings. A plethora of studies of employers has shown that Indian graduates lack core skills and employability characteristics.

Having a higher education system that pays greater attention to changing labour market circumstances, both in India and abroad, including placing emphasis on innovation, creativity, teamwork and problem solving as distinct from traditional rote learning, would encourage greater employability.

Domestic rankings

India’s new domestic rankings system contains many important features aimed at driving and shaping the development of the sector. It contains metrics in research and teaching excellence, similar to global rankings, which will drive objective performance analysis, domestic competition and internal benchmarking, thus providing a basis for the potential entry of institutions into the global rankings.

In addition, the domestic rankings cover important India-specific features relating to regional diversity, outreach, gender equity and inclusion of the disadvantaged in society.

As the domestic rankings evolve and mature, India may eventually be in a position to influence the parameters and indicators of the global rankings. This in turn would enhance the reputation of Indian institutions.

Of course, while rankings can be a valuable tool for promoting reform in the Indian higher education system, this cannot be done without addressing fundamental issues of governance, accountability and transparency.

Dr Anand Kulkarni is a consultant and principal adviser at Victoria University in Australia. Kulkarni’s book on India and the Knowledge Economy, published by Springer, is expected at the end of 2017.