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Straight Talk: Do College Rankings Matter?

Prospective students should not decide where to study based on college rankings alone, says BITS-Pilani Professor Pushkar.
BY Pushkar |   13-05-2014
College and university rankings have become a routine feature of India’s higher education landscape. Magazines such as India TodayOutlook and Careers 360 prepare all-India rankings on an annual basis – in various fields of study including law, the humanities, and social sciences. These rankings are a useful source of information for prospective students.

The question, however, is: How seriously should prospective students look at these rankings in making decisions about where to study?

It is easy to forget that world university rankings were introduced just over a decade or so ago by China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU). Since then, of course, they have become both incredibly popular and influential the world over. However, many international higher education experts have correctly pointed out that there are several methodological problems in how rankings are determined.

India-level rankings, conducted by various magazines, are far less sophisticated than the world university or subject rankings produced by Times Higher Education (THE), U.S. News & World Report, or the SJTU, and are therefore even more partial and unreliable. More bothersome is the fact that several sub-par colleges and universities have at different times figured in the list of top 100 or so institutions in the country.

You, as a prospective student, should not go by rankings alone in making your decision to study at Excellent Engineering College or Brilliant Institute of Science and Technology. You should also not be impressed by various awards that have been conferred on the Global Institute of Minus Studies.

Recently, the entrepreneur Mahesh Murthy drew attention to a prestigious award handed out by FICCI to a private university in Gujarat. As it turns out, a family member of the institution’s founder was on the FICCI jury that selected the award winner!

The now-discredited IIPM was once the darling of the media, winning several awards and making it to the charts of the same magazines which still bring you India-wide college rankings.

Of course, not all awards or India-wide college rankings are rigged. Nevertheless, many unscrupulous private institutions are known to lie about their “world-class” infrastructure and faculty and still break into the charts. If you are heading to college this coming year, you should know that you cannot fully trust rankings and awards – and must do a little extra research to help you make your decision on where to study.

Very few Indian colleges and universities offer good quality education. Most institutions, even if they are ranked by national magazines or have won some award or another, do not provide the knowledge and skills you need to become employable. You, the student, really are on your own.

The implications of poor quality education are obvious. Think employment prospects.

There is a skills shortage in India. If you are already in college, you may already know that – provided you have been attending classes. One of the big reasons why our higher education lags behind is because there is a severe deficit of qualified and capable faculty, even at premier institutions. Furthermore, the course content across disciplines at most institutions is ancient. This has direct implications for your employment prospects.

According to a recent report, less than 11 per cent of all hotel management graduates are employable. Such miserable numbers are not new. Prior reports have found graduates from across different disciplines, including engineering and management, to be lacking in employability skills.

Aspiring Minds publishes annual reports on employability and they are worth a look. The 2013 report found that 47 per cent of graduates are unemployable in any sector of the knowledge economy because of their lack of English and cognitive skills.

What I found interesting in the report is that over 40 percent of employable graduates are not from the top 30 percent colleges. What does that tell you about college rankings?

The numbers tell me that many ranked institutions do not impart the necessary knowledge or skills for employability. If I had to speculate, I would say that a majority of the 60 per cent employable graduates from the top 30 per cent colleges are in fact from the top 5 or top 10 per cent colleges. I would also speculate, based on the finding that a fairly large numbers of employable graduates (40 per cent or so) are from the bottom 70 percent colleges, that a good number of graduates became employable irrespective of the quality of their college education.

Overall, with the exception of graduates from the very best colleges, a majority of employable graduates do not acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to become employed on their own.

Pushkar is a contributor on India’s higher education for Asian Scientist (Singapore). He previously taught at Goa University, McGill University, Concordia University, and the University of Ottawa. He is currently with the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa. You can follow him on twitter at: @PushHigherEd



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