India plays to its strengths, but needs broader approach

As rankings results start to filter in for 2021 – and these are probably the last ‘pre-pandemic ones’ – it is useful to consider where things are at in subject rankings as a pointer to what should and needs to occur from here on in.

In a recent article for University World News, Angel Calderon pointed out that the United States and the United Kingdom continue to outperform other countries in the 2021 QS World University Rankings by Subject, with China in third place. The South and West Asia region has increased its share of subject listings since 2017.

Where is India in all of this, regarded as one of the movers and shakers in global higher education on the back of its young, aspirational and mobile population, burgeoning middle class, strong commitment to, and tradition of, education, supported by parental attitudes, and growing investment by both the public and private sectors?

The broad picture

In its broadest subject categories – arts and humanities, engineering and technology, life sciences and medicine, natural sciences, and social sciences and management – we observe that between 2020 and 2021 India has had somewhat mixed results.

In terms of the number of ranked institutions in the QS ranking, India lost ground marginally in the arts and humanities (down from six to five ranked institutions), natural sciences (down from 11 to 10), social sciences and management (down from 11 to 10), held ground in engineering and technology (12 ranked institutions in both years) and improved slightly in life sciences and medicine (up from two to three).

Within this there has been some realignment. For example, we observe that a number of India’s famed Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) have lost ground in terms of ranking position across a variety of fields in the wake of competition not only from China but other emerging institutions in Asia.

Having said that, it is still the case that the small, elite, public IITs and IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management) continue to dominate the rankings landscape in India. Some fare particularly well, it must be noted. Take, for example, IIT Bombay and IIT Delhi, which are ranked at 49th and 54th place respectively in engineering and technology out of more than 500 globally ranked institutions.

With other players coming into the Indian market, including private providers and possibly foreign institutions as India continues to liberalise its sector, some further new entrants into the rankings cannot be discounted, although this is likely to take time. Building world standard capability requires investment and patient capital.

It is possible also that India will become a real focus of attention for the world in the years ahead due to its growing liberalisation and due to the ongoing tensions around engagement with China on the part of a number of nations.

The narrower picture

Examining the QS rankings by narrower fields is also illuminating. Out of 51 narrow subject areas, nine subjects dominate in terms of the numbers of ranked Indian institutions: computer sciences and information systems (23 institutions); chemical engineering (13); chemistry (20); electrical and electronic engineering (15); mechanical, aeronautical and manufacturing engineering (14); biological sciences (17); pharmacy and pharmacology (12); mathematics (13); physics and astronomy (17); and business and management (16).

These areas of subject strength align with India’s traditional and newer industrial strengths as well as its broader economic capabilities as the world’s software capital; its largest pharmaceutical producer and its increasing innovation in home-grown vaccinations for COVID-19; its status as a global player in space technology; its traditional strengths in mathematics and natural sciences; and its reputation as the home of dynamic entrepreneurs.

Areas of concern

Despite all this, there is still a sense of unease. First, Indian institutions are not strongly represented across the 51 fields. India is not heavily represented in a number of the arts and allied fields or not represented at all. Is India missing out on the synergies and knowledge collaborations associated with cross-disciplinary, multidisciplinary studies? Funding, skills deficit and history are all a likely part of this.

A second concern, arguably, is the absence of clustering or a critical mass of related fields. For example, while medicine has nine ranked institutions, there are no ranked institutions at all for nursing or psychology. India does suffer from having one of the lowest density rates for medical personnel in the world according to the World Health Organization.

Of course, the ability to meet the needs of the labour market through its top-ranked education institutions is not the ‘be-all and end-all’, but it certainly helps.

Third, in some areas of current and future need there is a relative absence of highly ranked institutions by field. For example, India has only four ranked institutions in agriculture and forestry, which could be a concern, given that India continues to be heavily dependent on agriculture and has been taking controversial steps to modernise, upgrade and add value to its agricultural sector. Similarly, India has no ranked institutions in veterinary science.

Further, and looking ahead, there are relatively few ranked institutions in environmental studies, an area of great need for both India and the world as the spectre of climate change and challenges in resource management and energy loom large. India’s potential to contribute to national and global solutions could be compromised.

Finally, one clear lesson from the COVID-19 lockdowns and beyond is the enormous importance of cutting-edge teachers, in India and around the world. It is therefore disconcerting that India has no ranked institutions in the field of education and training.

All in all, India continues to perform solidly in some fields in the QS rankings by subject. With greater investment in capability building, India has an opportunity, and indeed the need, to consolidate and extend its institutional competitive advantage.

Dr Anand Kulkarni is a higher education professional at Victoria University, Australia. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. Kulkarni’s book, India and the Knowledge Economy: Performance, Perils and Prospects, is published by Springer.