What India’s performance in the Impact Rankings tells us

One thing is for certain, in spite of the current turmoil facing the global higher education sector, university rankings continue to garner interest. This article focuses on India’s performance in the recently released Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings 2020, which measure a university’s contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals according to the broad criteria of outreach, research and stewardship.

India and the Impact Rankings

Notwithstanding the significant increase in the number of institutions between the rankings of 2019 and 2020, India is moving upwards. Compared to 2019 when India had 2.8% of ranked institutions in the Impact Rankings (13 out of 467), in 2020 this has reached 3.4% (26 out of 767).

In the ‘mainstream’ rankings, ie the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, India has also advanced, but to a lesser extent, from 49 institutions out of a total of 1,258 (3.9%) to 56 institutions out of a total of 1,397 (just over 4%).

However, in making comparisons between types of rankings, care needs to be exercised. They measure different things, reflect the varying missions of institutions and have different emphases, for example, the World University Rankings place more emphasis on research compared to Impact Rankings, while Impact Rankings reflect factors such as community outreach.

As Angel Calderon points out, more than 30% of institutions included in the Impact Rankings are not ranked in the THE World University Rankings. The ‘usual suspects’ in the world rankings, such as Ivy League institutions, are by and large absent from the Impact Rankings.

However, the improvement in both rankings for India, when allied with its emerging strong position in the Global Innovation rankings – it ranked 52nd in the world out of 129 countries, including seventh position for graduates in science and engineering, 15th for research expenditure by globally listed companies and 23rd for industry and university collaboration – suggests that India is becoming a player in the global knowledge economy.

From clean water to general environmental performance

Drilling deeper into India’s performance in the latest Impact Rankings, we observe considerable variation. By Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), there is some evidence of critical mass of Indian institutions ranked in ‘Good Health and Well-Being’ (SDG 3), ‘Quality Education’ (SDG 4), ‘Gender Equality’ (SDG 5), ‘Clean Water and Sanitation’ (SDG 6) and ‘Partnership for the Goals’ (SDG 17), the latter being a mandatory SDG for inclusion in the overall impact rankings.

Certainly, these align with the challenges facing the Indian economy and society, including, for example, pervasive and damaging gender inequality in all its multiple forms. Clean water and sanitation also reflect the national government’s priorities, as evidenced by its Swachh Bharat (Clean India) agenda.

However, it is also the case that India has far fewer ranked institutions in the other SDGs that are pertinent to the nation’s challenges. For example, it does not perform nearly as well for SDGs linked to ‘No Poverty’ (SDG 1), although its best performer is sixth in the world, ‘Decent Work And Economic Growth’ (SDG 8), ‘Climate Action’ (SDG 13), ‘Life below Water’ (SDG 14) and ‘Life on Land’ (SDG 15).

This perhaps reflects a lack of wider capability in the higher education sector and the absence of ‘diverse specialisations’. Certainly, with the exception of the clean water and sanitation SDG, the weaker performance of ranked Indian institutions in the other natural environment-related SDGs raises eyebrows, as attention to this area is urgently required.

India performs poorly – it ranks 177 out of 180 countries – on the global Environmental Performance Index, which is a comprehensive ranking encompassing environmental health and eco-system vitality.

Other observations

Some other features of India’s performance in the Impact Rankings are worth noting. First, around one half of ranked India institutions are private ones. This reflects greater private provision of higher education in India and its growing role in providing more capacity in the system, as well as arguably new approaches and perspectives to teaching and learning.

It is interesting therefore to note the preponderance of private players in the UN SDGs which relate, in large measure, to public good concerns, representing an emerging ‘blurring’ of sectoral boundaries. As a more general proposition, rather than relating to these ranked institutions per se, concerns have been raised about the quality and accountability of private providers in Indian education.

In addition, the dominance of the famous Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Management and Indian Institute of Science in the World University Rankings is not especially pronounced in the Impact Rankings. This, of course, is in line with the idea that Impact Rankings favour universities with different missions, capabilities and priorities.

What is more, there are relatively small numbers of institutions which appear in both the World University Rankings and the Impact Rankings, suggesting quite a demarcation in the Indian higher education sector. Of course, all of this needs to be conditioned by the fact that a number of institutions simply may not choose to participate in the Impact Rankings.

Another observation that is reflective of the World University Rankings is the relative paucity of the ‘next tier’ of ranked institutions. For example, India’s best performer is ranked equal 57th, after which its next best is in the 201-300 range, tentatively suggesting the lack of a core of robust mid-tier institutions.

India in the context of other institutions in Asia

What is also of interest is that, out of a group of lower-middle to upper-middle income Asian countries, India fares well comparatively, with more overall ranked institutions in the Impact Rankings – 26 – compared to Vietnam, which has two, Sri Lanka (two), Thailand (19), the Philippines (four), Indonesia (nine), Malaysia (13) and Taiwan (24). Arguably, at least in relation to these Impact Rankings, India is becoming a power in the broader Asian region.

China is interesting, with only nine institutions in the Impact Rankings, demonstrating clearly that China is strategically focused on the World University Rankings to build profile, and attract students and academics.

Another interesting story is that of Pakistan, which has 23 ranked institutions in the Impact Rankings, disproportionately higher than its performance in the World University Rankings.

In this context, it is worth concluding with a potentially key question facing India. Especially in the wake of the COVID-19 constrained resource environment facing institutions, we should ask if India will continue to, and can afford to, have it both ways and participate in multiple rankings, or will it be more in its strategic interests to rationalise its ranking efforts as China is doing?

Although unlikely, could India view itself as a counterpoint in the long term and become a global powerhouse in the Impact Rankings?

Dr Anand Kulkarni is associate director, planning and performance, Victoria University, Australia. His book on India and the Knowledge Economy: Performance, perils and prospects was published by Springer in September 2019.