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Straight Talk: A close look at the 2018 national university rankings

The MHRD recently published the third edition of the National University Rankings. What do they really tell us about India's higher education sector? Dr. Pushkar takes a close look.
BY Pushkar |   26-04-2018

A few weeks ago, the 2018 National Institute Ranking Framework (NIRF) Rankings were released. This was the third edition of government rankings of India’s colleges and universities after 2016 and 2017. The 2018 rankings identified eight different kinds of higher education institutions - universities, engineering, medical, pharmacy, management, architecture, law and colleges – and ranked them in their respective categories. In addition, there was an overall or comprehensive ninth category which combined all the above eight types of institutions to rank them together. The institutions were evaluated on five parameters: teaching, learning and resources; research and professional practice; graduation outcomes; outreach and inclusivity; and perception. Approximately the same parameters are used internationally by Times Higher Education (THE) and others to prepare world university rankings each year.

In the 2018 NIRF rankings, six Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) finished in the top 10 of the “overall” category – Madras (2nd), Bombay (3rd), Delhi (4th), Kharagpur (5th), Kanpur (7th) and Roorkee (8th) – along with the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) which placed 1st, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 6th spot, Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in 9th spot and Anna University in 10th place.

The 2018 rankings show some improvements over the previous attempts. Among other things, the number of categories have been increased to accommodate diverse types of institutions such as those which are focused on select areas such as law and architecture. Not all these categories existed earlier. The number of participating institutions has increased as well to 4,500. Meanwhile, the government has made it clear that all higher education institutions must participate in the rankings. Minister Minister Prakash Javadekar stated in no uncertain terms that “those public institutions which will not take part…will face fund cut." It is expected that all government institutions will eventually participate in the rankings.

There are three competing views on university rankings, whether carried out by the Indian government, or world university rankings prepared by organizations such as THE, Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) and Shanghai Rankings.

The first is that rankings are necessary and useful since they force universities to compete and become better in the process. Students also benefit from rankings since they get a better idea of the institution they would like to attend.

The second view is that the rankings exercise has gone too far, especially considering that the methodologies used to prepare are remain flawed and make unfair comparisons between universities across the world or within India.

The third view is that whether we like it or not, rankings have come to stay and its users – whether the government or university officials or students and parents - must learn to utilize them in a prudent and discerning manner. Be as it may, the 2018 NIRF rankings, as was true of the 2016 and 2017 rankings, attracted some sharp observations and valid criticisms.

For example, Sanjay Goel pointed out in his blog that overall only 15 universities/institutes scored >=75 marks out of 100 across the nine categories of institutions. Interestingly, with the exception of the National Law School of India, Bangalore, all the others are either IITs, IIMs or science/technology/pharmacy institutions. No comprehensive institution, including JNU which topped the list of universities, scored 75 or more. Furthermore, a large majority of the top 100 NIRF-2018 listed institutes in all the nine categories scored less than 60 marks out of 100. For Goel, these low scores reflect the mediocre quality of the majority of Indian higher education institutions. However, scores of 75 or more or 60 and lower by themselves do not say much about the quality of education. To make these scores meaningful, it is necessary to compare scores obtained by leading Indian universities in the 2018 NIRF rankings with the scores obtained by them and the leading universities in international rankings. So for example, in the 2018 THE world university rankings, only the top 40 universities registered a score of 75 or more. However, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), which topped the rankings in India rankings with a score of 82.16 marks, could not even obtain 50 in the THE rankings. What this conveys is that, first, the NIRF rankings are not particularly stringent in comparison to THE rankings; and second, that the best Indian institutions do not fare very well internationally.

Another common criticism is that different kinds of institutions are not comparable. For example, it does not seem to make sense to compare JNU to an IIT or IIM. While the former is a comprehensive and essentially an institution focused on post-graduate studies and social sciences, the latter are far more narrowly-focused. In most if not nearly all cases, a student – who is supposed to benefit from the rankings - does not choose between an IIT, an IIM and JNU but between different IITs, IIMs and between JNU and other universities. However, since rankings for comprehensive institutions/universities are also prepared separately from engineering institutions, such criticism is unwarranted. It is also important to note that world university rankings too rank comprehensive institutions or science- or technology-focused institutions together. It is quite another matter that the majority of the world’s best universities are comprehensive institutions unlike in India where technology- and science-focused institutions such as the IISc or IITs dominate the rankings.

Another interesting criticism, which is not very different from the previous one but which has greater merit, is that NIRF rankings do not account for the diversity of India’s higher education institutions in terms of how well or how badly they are funded. As stated above, the bulk of India’s higher education institutions are mediocre and the majority of students attend these mediocre institutions, whether in the public or private sector. More than 65% students attend private institutions, most of which are expensive and useless and do not improve their life chances. The remainder study at public institutions, especially at state universities, which are broken in terms of their infrastructure, intellectual capacity and spirit. One of the major factors for their mediocrity, other than poor governance, is that they are poorly funded. Such institutions are not worthy of being ranked and should perhaps not even be allowed to participate in national rankings.

Why should state universities, many of which have not hired faculty for many years due to insufficient funding, and are barely able to pay their faculty, be forced to compete in national rankings?

Overall, it is only a handful of institutions, mostly those which are funded by the central government, and a few select private universities, that are financially capable of competing in rankings. The government should really be looking closely at the budgetary allocations of state institutions before threatening them with further cuts should they not participate in NIRF rankings.

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Pushkar (PhD McGill) is Director, The International Centre Goa (ICG).

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