“No Indian Universities in the top ranks of global league tables”, the cry rises with seasonal passion. “No rank above 300!”, we bemoan. “Is this what has come to pass in the land of Takshashila and Nalanda”, we add. “In the land of the zero”, comes the ultimate salvo.
It is true, that Indian Universities do not perform well in the league tables. It is also true that the low ranking is not underserved. Indian Universities have allowed themselves to slide relative to the world, trapped in their traditions and bureaucracy. Lulled into a sense of false security by the paucity of ‘seats’ in the country, they believe that the vast list of students clamouring to get in to their colleges is a sign that all is well. But all is not well. Those who can afford it, are already seeking admissions in better universities abroad. Worse, Universities face the ignominy of not being able to recruit world class faculty - the best, with noble exceptions, choose to live and work abroad. The universities may think they can avoid competing with the rest of the world, but this competition is upon them. They do not have a choice any more.
As it stands, Indian Universities seem to be comfortable in their little pond, ignoring the league tables or the other quality parameters that seem to catalyse change in the universities of the world, for example - the Bologna process that is slowly working its way through the grand old dames of the European University systems. Do Indian universities even need to be a part of this quality movement? Should they even try to compete for room in the league tables?
It is a given that no league table is a comprehensive arbiter of quality, nor do they claim to be the flag bearers of better institutions. At the same time, it is a valuable insight into what counts as valuable and good across the world. If for nothing else, Indian universities must take note of this consensus on benchmarks. Even if they cannot win yet.
Do Indian institutions even want to or need to be in these tables?
Who doesn’t really? Why would glory and recognition be rejected if they could make it there? But should they? Indian universities have different goals - they need to work to give access to more students, have goals in terms of equity and affordability. Do they have the bandwidth to compete on quality? The tragedy here is that these are seen as goals to be acquired serially, not simultaneously. The quest for quality has started only recently, after decades spend in providing mere access - and here too there isn’t enough of it. This, at the cost of generations who have suffered sub standard higher education. Now, there is no choice but to invest in quality, but the baggage of the past must be discarded first. Unwinding and change is always hard work, and painful it times, but essential now. If the purpose of our universities is to create employable youth, then given India’s demographics, they must help them attain global mobility. If the universities themselves are not credible or known, the degrees they give their students are not worth much across the world. To fulfill their basic function they must compete in the league tables, and play to win.
What should universities do if they want to climb up the league tables?
When stated like that, the answer becomes simple. We do it all the time. This is what Indians are good at - if there is an exam, we figure it out, crack the code and beat the system. Once we decide that we want Indian Universities up there in the league tables, and we are able to find the will to invest in that decision, here is what we need to do next.
The Goal Posts:
It was a simple academic who stood on the podium and explained how he designed the Shangai University Rankings, the first grand attempt to unify the world of universities and understand them better relative to each other. Others were there too - prominent - the Thomson Reuters and Times Higher Education Ranking that publishes various indices ranking Universities. Indian higher education invested in understanding this know how years ago, and yet, each year, come the rankings, we are no closer to bridging the gap.
The first step has been taken, understanding the criteria. The Shanghai rankings are more academic than the Times WUR rankings. All of them need universities to have two clear sets of achievements - good research and good linkages with universities in other countries either in the form of students, citations or reputation. The Shanghai rankings are based off a community of Nobel and Fields medal winners amongst alumni and faculty and their research output. They look and measure
* the quality of education (alumni achievement via medals),
* the quality of faculty (via research publications and citations)
* research output measured and
* per capita performance at an institution.
About 80% of the weightage in this ranking is to medals, citations and research. It is no surprise that the results are more establishmentarian and fewer younger universities make the cut.
The Times Higher Education World University Rankings are far more democratic, and in addition to teaching, research and citations which have 90% weightage, they also include income from innovations and international outlook. What is interesting is that research inputs are not merely by citations, but also by academic reputation amongst international peers. Even when judging teaching, the surveyed views of invited scholars are included.
Other league tables exist too, the most notable amongst them the QS rankings (http://www.iu.qs.com/university-rankings/world-university-rankings/) where surveys supply data on academic and employer reputations forming half the ranking. The other half is made up of citations and faculty student data. What is interesting here is the high weightage given to faculty student ratios - which is rather unusual in higher education, and the space given to international students and faculty (10%). While older Ivy league universities often get top ranking across all league tables, it is interesting to see younger universities climb through the ranks over the years.
Does India stand a chance?
What would an Indian do, I ask again, when faced with an exam, past results and a clear sense of the syllabus? Even better - the scoring pattern?
Probably figure out a plan. And resource it. And then get down to some hard studying, often at the cost of much of ‘life’ till the goal is achieved. If we expect that from our students, then why not from our institutions?
The good news is that the work has already begun. Some of it was a natural consequence of India’s academic history, the rest was slowly nudged into place - and continues to receive support - of sorts. Since India did not have institutions of higher education of note in the early years, many of its brightest went abroad to study. So much so that the worry was about brain drain. This diaspora has now grown in maturity and size and is a strong supporter of research in and on India. For example, the new director of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, Ashish Nanda, is not only an alumnus but also has deep research experience across academia. (And I hear, has never lost a single grade point in any degree acquired!) There are hundreds of academics with deep experience in good quality research who are willing to contribute and support Indian research. Research collaborations across institutions are at an all time high- in fact the best institutes in India admit that they cannot deal with all the collaboration requests they receive.
The second was a conscious policy driven nudge that started a few years ago, when universities were told to improve their research output. This was measured via peer reviewed journal papers and via citation indices. While this research often falls into the trap of quantity over quality, it is also true that the number of Indian papers being cited, by volume has gone up in the last decade. The debate over whether citations are an indication of quality rages on but that is not the question under consideration. Citations are an important part of the league tables, if we want to climb those tables, we must win the citations game.
The number of papers written by Indians (at least one author) went up 80% between 1998 and 2007, even so it was at half the volumes of developed nations. By volume, India’s papers in the science and social sciences took it up to rank 11 in 2010, while its citations received rank was a respectable 17 and citations per paper put it at 34th rank. This augurs well for the future, as in recent years the emphasis on research across universities has become more marked. Volumes are certainly up, while impact and quality are still to be judged. There are incentives, including a clear linkage between paper publications in good journals and promotions. Some universities offer monetary incentives while others offer opportunities to collaborate and interact based on research performance. Since research is the largest component of most league tables, it is critical to support work on the citation indices. The other aspect is peer recommendation, which is a gradual process and will be successful only if there is an effective campaign supporting it.
India does not fare too well on internationalization - the number of foreign students in its universities is rather low. Given the fact that there are not enough seats for Indian students, bringing in foreign students seems to be a low priority. Yet there are advantages to that, not least being the improved ranking on the league tables. Foreign students bring a range of learning with them, including languages. As do foreign faculty. The cross pollination of ideas and ways of doing things opens up horizons for domestic students. Education has been a way of soft power for countries such as the UK for decades, even the USA is seeking to formally invest for such gains. Increasing foreign faculty is low hanging fruit, if the funds are made available and will dramatically improve teaching, learning research and rankings.
If there is a will, then Indian universities can surely make their presence felt in the league tables. But this will not be a painless process and will need ruthless focus. Even before work starts there will be internal politics to deal with, and a strong case to be made for the need for such competition. Then, and most importantly, universities will need a strategy. A strategy for getting on to the league tables would set clear goals for the University and will help them align along clear asks. As of now, few universities have either a clear strategy or philosophy that distinguishes it from the others and helps them find their rightful place in the world. Universities need to look beyond the operations of filling their seats and the tactics of running the sausage factory. This is what must change for real success.
To survive, not only do they have to play the tactical game of finding a place in the world, but must find a unique identity of their own that plays to their purpose and their strength. And if they have none, they must choose what strengths they want to build and invest accordingly. Finally, our universities, researchers and academics need friends. All these tables depend heavily on surveys of selected academics from key institutions across the world - it is good to be known and thus marked amongst those who count in academia.
Yes, our University system is working towards accessibility, equity, affordability and quality - but what does it mean for building a world reputation? Does it contribute? To climb up the league tables, some universities will have to choose it as a clear goal, and direct all their efforts towards building a strong reputation via research, networking, collaboration and internationalization. This is a long game, but not a difficult one. If India chooses, it can be up there. If not at the top, since its universities are young, but at least among those in the leagues of pride, not in the sloughs of shame.
The author is Writer, Advisor and Consultant in Education