Wednesday, May 14, 2014

University Ranking Revisited

There has been considerable angst in India regarding the failure of our universities and technical institutions to break into the top world rankings. The President of India refers to this frequently in his speeches. Last year, the Ministry of HRD thought this was serious enough to invite some of the ranking agencies to visit the ministry to explain why we don’t make it. Like several others, I have written about this issue in some of my earlier articles and posts.

I got a chance to reflect on some of the related issues again on Monday when I attended “The Rankings and Excellence Dialogue” organized by the Indian Centre for Assessment & Accreditation (ICAA) at Delhi last Monday. ICAA is a non-profit with the dream of getting 5 Indian universities into the top 100. Former Infosys CFO and Manipal Global Education Chairperson Mohandas Pai is the aggressive and articulate Chair of the ICAA.

Why are rankings important?

Why bother about rankings? This is one of the first questions that surfaced in the dialogue. There was some light-hearted banter about how we all like lists and rankings, but the more serious answer is related to education itself. It’s difficult to measure the quality of education, and both accreditation and rankings help “customers” of education in making an informed choice.

Rankings are particularly important in a cross-border context where students have to make choices from thousands of miles away. Not surprisingly, internationalization figures as an important parameter in many of the ranking systems. This also tells us why international rankings were never very important for Indian institutions –with such high domestic demand, there has never been a focus on international students in India’s leading institutions.

Research, availability of data

But, with India’s ongoing quest for global respect and recognition on all fronts, the importance of rankings has risen. This has had atleast one good outcome – it has put the spotlight on the research output of Indian institutions as all the major global rankings give considerable weightage to research (measured in terms of publications per faculty member, citations per paper, etc.).

One point that was made repeatedly at the dialogue is that Indian institutions don’t collect or maintain data systematically, and this puts them at a disadvantage in any ranking process. Another related challenge is the use of acronyms and a lack of uniformity in the way institutions are referred to (or even refer to themselves!). For example, publications from faculty at IIT Madras carry the institutional affiliation as IITM, IIT Madras and sometimes even IIT Chennai and therefore any attempt to measure research output using a publications database could be challenging.

QS Asia Rankings

The QS Asia rankings were released on the occasion. I had often wondered in the past why there was a separate list of regional rankings and how come the relative positions of institutions on the regional list were different from the global list. I finally got an answer – the regional rankings use different parameters and different weightages to reflect regional priorities.

17 institutions from India figure in the QS Asia rankings, with all the older IITs in the top 100. New entrants to the list include IIIT Allahabad and Amity. IIT Delhi is the top-ranked institution from India at #38.

Useful Insights

Secretary (Higher Education) in the MHRD Ashok Thakur gave a useful overview of the current developments in higher education in India. He emphasized the importance of speedy accreditation of Indian universities and institutions by credible and arm’s length accreditation bodies in order to move away from the “minimum standards” approach of the UGC and AICTE. He identified three positive developments: (1) the positive role played by the President of India in underlining the importance of joining the global mainstream in higher education and being willing to compete on the same terms as others; (2) the trend towards more outcome-based parameters to measure institutional performance (e.g. the Tandon committee that reviewed deemed universities); and (3) the Rashtriya Uchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) which will direct central money to state universities based on their performance and adoption of reforms.

Another interesting feature of the event was an energetic panel discussion compered by Natasha Jog of NDTV (it should be screened by NDTV Profit sometime soon). Some of the interesting perspectives that emerged from the discussion are:

Sudha Pai, Rector of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), argued that JNU is doing a fine job when you take into account its success in social inclusion and the constraints under which it functions (such as the mindless application of UGC guidelines, bureaucratic processes for faculty recruitment, etc.). It was clear from her comments that unless we unshackle some of the top government-sponsored universities, they will decline further.

Mohandas Pai made an impassioned plea to remember that higher education exists for the youth of our country and that all courses and programmes should be designed and offered with the student in mind. He pointed out that many of the concerns in higher education are no different from the concerns indentified by the Radhakrishnan Commission in 1949!

Narayanan Ramaswamy of KPMG asked a question that many of us have wondered about before – India has so much internal diversity, do we really need internationalization as well? Another interesting observation from him: Are ranking agencies thinking ahead about the parameters that are more relevant today?

Focus on World Class Universities

A presentation by one of the QS experts present revealed that countries as diverse as China, Japan and Thailand have programs underway to improve the rankings of their top universities.

At the same time there was a recognition that universities will have different goals and that not all universities will strive for global rankings (there are 18,000 universities in the world – only 200 can be in the top 200!).

The Bottomline

The main advantage of participation in rankings and accreditation efforts is to create a trajectory for improvement. Benchmarking helps identify gaps, and devise plans to fill these gaps. When taken in this spirit, both benchmarking and accreditation can be useful exercises.

Up-to-date comparative data on key parameters like research output, impact factors, teaching quality, and industry perception of the institution would help do this benchmarking better. It would be useful if someone could take up a thorough and objective process of compiling this data and providing the resultant rankings.


  1. One key parameter, that is likely to be ignored, but can make a big impact is the interference of Govts in appointments of VCs. (May be Sudha Pai made a similar plea, as you have mentioned) For ex, in Karnataka, we had a case of a VC in VTU (still in office, given an extension!) who was accused of being "ineligible" to hold the post even on technical grounds. Ground reports in local academia spoke of a 4 Cr pay off to the nominating authority to get this "appointment". With this rent seeking becomes the rule and other goals get ignored. How does one address this to improve rankings and short comings?

  2. International diversity of students is given significant weight in these rankings. This works in favour of smaller countries in asia. E.g if singapore gets students from malaysia or hk univs gets from china Philippines etc. I think measurement of diversity among students needs to consider other factors like mother tongue so that a truer representation of diversity.

  3. While India can have some universities that achieve positions in Asian rankings in 200, most others should evolve their definition and criteria of quality in line with their unique strategic intent reflecting local concerns. Most Asian universities seem to have such internal systems to climb up on quality ladder.