IITs lead in national rankings but continue global boycott

Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) dominate the country’s national university rankings released this week, with individual IITs taking seven of the top 10 slots of the best higher education institutions in the country.

Yet, six of the seven IITs in the top-10 list do not even appear in international rankings such as the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, having boycotted the United Kingdom-based ranking for three years in a row while calling for more transparency in THE indicators.

IIT Madras in Chennai, Tamil Nadu state, topped the overall national rankings list for the fifth consecutive year since 2019, according to the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) Rankings 2023 released by the Ministry of Education on 5 June. Other IITs in the top 10 included IITs Delhi, Bombay, Kanpur, Kharagpur, Roorkee and Guwahati.

India has 23 government-funded but autonomous IITs with students selected via a highly competitive joint examination.

Apart from IITs, institutions in the top 10 include the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru (Bangalore), the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Of the comprehensive, multi-faculty research universities, Banaras Hindu University, Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi and Jadavpur University in Kolkata took 11th, 12th and 13th spots respectively. The top 100 in the ‘Overall’ category featured seven centrally-funded universities, 33 private and autonomous (deemed) universities and 26 state universities.

The Indian Institute of Science (IISC), Bengaluru topped the ‘Universities’ category for the eighth consecutive year (2016 -2023). It stood first in the ‘Research Institutions’ category for a third consecutive year 2021-2023.

Inclusivity and outreach

Launching the rankings this week, Raj Kumar Ranjan Singh, minister of state for Ministry of Education and Ministry of External Affairs, pointed to the importance of rankings as a tool for students in selecting universities and noted the rankings exercise helped universities in identifying areas for improvement in teaching, research, resources and other aspects.

“This initiative has fostered a culture of data organisation and curation among participating institutions, promoting healthy competition on a national and international scale,” he said.

However, other top officials emphasised important differences between the national and international rankings.

There is a “need for spirit of competition amongst our institutions, no doubt, but our ethos, our culture has to be reflected in our ranking system”, stressed Anil Sahasrabudhe, chair of the National Education and Technology Forum and a member of the NIRF committee, speaking at the rankings launch in New Delhi.

Among the national ranking categories not included in international rankings is ‘Inclusivity and outreach’, which Saharasrabudhe described as “a very important parameter in our (national) context”.

Inclusivity and outreach includes parameters such as regional diversity or percentage of students from other states, proportion of women, number of economically and socially challenged students, and facilities for physically challenged students.

“When we look at the different world activities on rankings, be it Times Higher Education or the ranking by the QS, or the Shanghai ranking, they have completely different parameters. And that is why Indian institutions were never appearing in the top 100 and sometimes very few in the top 200 or 300,” Saharasrabudhe noted.

Kamakoti Veezhinathan , director of IIT Madras, told CNN-News18 broadcast channel on 7 June his institution would not alter such commitments in order to be listed in international rankings – a reference to the ongoing boycott by six top IITs of international rankings run by THE.

“We don’t want to change our social commitment and educational methodology to get listed in international ranking lists; these are factors which are important to us,” he said, pointing to increased access to higher education in India.

“Our aim is to increase the [country’s] gross enrolment ratio from 26% to 50%. Our education system is completely different from the foreign educational systems,” said Kamakoti.

Nonetheless, he pointed to a need for a strong research emphasis, which is also reflected in international rankings.

IIT Madras ranked second in the ‘Research universities’ category of the national rankings. “We believe we can come up with more research papers. At IIT there are more than 3,500 research papers submitted every year and we are taking more efforts through interdisciplinary courses to increase it to 5,000 every year.

“Again, I want to emphasise, [it is] the quality of the research papers that matter more than the number of papers we submit in a year," he added.

Kamakoti also said IIT Madras would establish a branch campus in Tanzania in October, part of a plan for a chain of IIT branch campuses overseas announced last year.

International rankings boycott

The seven older IITs in Mumbai, Delhi, Bombay, Madras, Kanpur, Roorkee and Kharagpur first boycotted THE rankings in 2020, citing concerns over transparency after none of them were in the world’s best 300 universities the year before. In 2019, a relatively new institution, IIT Ropar, established in 2008 in Punjab state, surprisingly beat its more established counterparts in the rankings, scoring high on the citation metric on account of being part of an international collaborative research project.

The citation metric, a measure of the average number of times a university's published work is cited by scholars globally and was given a strong weighting in the THE rankings.

IIT Bombay Director Subhasis Chaudhuri said in October last year: “We should know what the [rankings] process is. There is no reason to participate without knowing what exactly we are participating in.”

IIT Guwahati in Assam, which boycotted the international ranking for two years but returned to the THE ranking this year, came ninth overall in India’s national rankings this year, but 1001th in the THE rankings. IIT Madras was ranked 250 in the QS World University Rankings 2023, while IIT Bombay came in at 172 in the QS rankings.

The absence of IITs in some international rankings, even as IIT alumni dominate technology industries in India, the United States and elsewhere in the world, has embarrassed rankings organisations.

In March this year, in a presentation to IIT Delhi, IIT Bombay and IIT Madras, THE reportedly listed modifications to ranking criteria, including citation metrics criticised by IITs who maintain that other institutions use collaborative research projects to inflate scores on the metric, according to a report by The Indian Express Newspaper.

In addition to halving the weighting of the citation metric, THE added three new indicators that collectively account for 15%: typical research strength (5%), excellence in research (5%) and the network effect of citations (5%). These parameters collectively make up for the reduction in the research citation metric, which previously had a significant weighting of 30% of the total score, The Indian Express reported.

THE has said it continues to talk with IITs and has given them “a detailed explanation” of their methodology, adding that THE has incorporated some of IITs’ suggestions in its latest rankings.

The Indian Express said IIT Bombay’s Chaudhuri and IIT Delhi’s Rangan Banerjee, who were among those who attended the THE’s March presentation in New Delhi, said they had not yet decided whether to resume participation in the international ranking, and that the heads of the seven older IITs would decide collectively, since the boycott in 2020 was also a joint one.

K Sanjay Murthy, secretary for higher education in the Ministry of Education, referred to the transparency controversy during the NIRF rankings launch this week, but said Indian institutions needed to take part in international rankings.

“There is always a debate whether that [international rankings] is transparent or not. But I think we need to go beyond such arguments and make a further attempt to improve our rankings at the International level. It's not only good for the country, but the entire education system.”

Murthy, addressing university leaders on 5 June, noted that international rankings organisations, as well as the NIRF, change the ranking categories periodically, and that institutions needed to adapt.

He noted, for example, a greater focus on sustainability. “Many of the international [rankings] organisations are focusing on this point and we expect that you also plan ahead, that you have to align your education system processes and practices to ensure that you're able to meet those challenges … especially when the country has kept its targets for ensuring net zero [carbon emissions] in 2070.”

Greater number of participants

The number of categories and subject domains in the NIRF has increased from four in 2016 – the first national rankings list – to 13 this year. The 2023 rankings also included a new subject category of ‘Agriculture & Allied Sectors’ and expanded ‘Architecture’ to ‘Architecture and Planning’, to include courses in urban and town planning.

Another important addition is the Innovation ranking previously executed by the Atal Ranking of Institutions on Innovation Achievements, but which is now integrated into the national rankings to reduce the burden on institutions of providing similar data to two different agencies.

The innovation ranking assesses, among other things, innovation-startup ecosystems on campuses, entrepreneurship, incubation infrastructure and facilities, startup support, collaboration with industry associations and intellectual property rights.

IIT’s also dominated the innovation rankings, taking eight of the top 10 slots, with IIT Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh in lead position, followed by IIT Madras.

IIT Kanpur, with 109 IPRs (Intellectual Property Rights) filed in 2022 and 950 overall IPRs filed to date, along with 130 technologies being licensed to industry partners, boasts a remarkable translational rate of 13.68%, according to IIT Kanpur statistics.

In a note, the Ministry of Education said since the inception of the NIRF in 2016, the total number of higher education institutions taking part in the various categories and subject domains has gone up from 3,565 in 2016 to 8,686 in 2023.

Murthy said he hoped 15-16,000 institutions would take part in the NIRF rankings next year – double the number that participated this year.

Supporting institutions in submitting to rankings was important, he said. “Another important factor is that this invariably helps our position in international rankings.”