On October 2, “The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2013-2014” was declared. With Panjab University figuring in the top 226- 250 range there were discussions on how Panjab University bested the venerable IITs (do they even deserve the veneration), the reasons behind the debacle, and banal discussions whether IITs have failed the nation. A few weeks prior to that when QS World Universities Rankings came out, the discussion was on how IITs were performing poorly.
In the melee, two observations in response to the QS rankings merit closer scrutiny. One was Dr. Mohandas Pai’s comment that IITs could have gained better positions, if they were proactive. The second one was by Prof Indranil Manna, Director IIT Kanpur, who argued that the rankings were a money game.
The first has a ring of truth. Yes, Indian institutes are slightly better than what these ranks show. The presence of Panjab university in the THE rankings and the absence of other universities with a larger public persona -- JNU, Hyderabad Central University, DU, IISc in the list is proof enough for that. If these institutions shed their arrogance, they might actually increase their standing a bit. And Prof. Manna’s flippant remarks show why they can never do it. Prof. Manna seems to insinuate that things other than merit play a role in global ranking. This is an outright defense mechanism. By discrediting the ranking, Prof. Manna is trying to deflect the attention for the woeful state of academics in India in general, and in IITs in particular.
Globally there are three major university rankings. The QS World Ranking of Universities, The Times Higher Education World University Rankings and Academic Ranking of World Universities by Shanghai Jiao Tong University. We wrote to all three major rankings checking whether they charge any fees to participate. The response from Phil Baty, Editor, World Ranking at THE, UK is representative.
From: Baty, Phil [mailto:[email protected]]
Times Higher Education does not charge any fees at any stage in the rankings process. Our system is entirely voluntary. We have received confirmation that the IIT director was not referring to us.
It would be highly defamatory to suggest that there is any link between financial considerations and ranking performance in Times Higher Education's ranking.
Editor-at-Large & Rankings Editor Times Higher Education
Where do we stand?
As the following table shows, India institutions fare quite poorly in global standing, despite the HRD Minister’s exhortation to participate and perform better in global rankings.
As you can see, only one Indian institution figures in the purely academic rank (ARWU), that too in the 301- 400 group. The best ranking we have gained so far is 222, globally by IIT Delhi in QS ranking and 226, by Panjab University in THE 2013.
The fact that Panjab university has performed better shows that if a university takes the ranking seriously and provides sufficient information, it could get a reasonably good rank. We examined the scores of select Indian Universities that were present in the “THE Ranking”. It is citation count and international students that has given university an edge.
The ICCR data shows that over 112 students opted for Panjab University under its various schemes. This number could have been easily matched by universities like VIT, Symbiosis and to some extend JNU and DU. They do not care to report the information.
We looked at the citation figures a little closer, using the same database used by THE Ranking. The data looks like this
Name of the university
Tokyo Metropolitan University
Panjab University has not only improved its publication count substantially over the last five years, it has also produced better-cited papers. But other universities are not very far behind. For example Indian Institute of Science, if it has participated would come close to Panjab University. We looked at top publishing universities in the country. We discovered that if we go by the primary criterion of at least 200 publications a year for inclusion in THE rankings at least 25 Indian institutions could become eligible.
Pub.2000-2011 (10 years)
Avg. Annual output
Does methodology matter?
International Faculty (as a ratio to domestic faculty in THE)
International Students (ratio of domestic to international by THE)
Publications with international co author
Citations per Faculty (only highly citied researchers counted for ARWU)
Teaching and Learning
Doctorate to Bachelor
No of PhDs produced
Institutional Income against staff
Alumni (Fields Medals and Nobel Prizes)
Staff (Fields Medals and Nobel Prizes)
Research output in Nature & Science
Research output (SCI-expanded and SSCI)
Publications per faculty
Barring Academic ranking of world universities, which is completely dominated by research output, both QS and THE rankings have respectively 40 and 66% of the scores based on objective data. So Prof. Manna, if you perform, it has to come through, one way or the other. And if your performance data shines, perceptions can’t be far behind. As one can see, quite a few data points are driven by the data gathered and provided by institutions, like the number of PhDs produced or PhD to faculty ratio etc. It is here that Indian universities can perform better.
But take THE rankings for example. Citations alone count for 30%. And this number can only come through if you publish and what you publish merits a mention in many other publications. Our Profs have a long way to go here.
IIT SYSTEM as a whole is quite capable of figuring within the top 100 schools, but unfortunately the schools are independent entities
Is it a matter of money?
Yes and no. Great universities, especially the top 10 or 20 do have enviable track record, long history and, of course, huge budgets. Harvard’s annual operating expenses is about 4,042 million dollars in 2013, (even at 50 rupees to a dollar, it is about 20,200 crores) while as our entire higher education outlay for 2013-14 is Rs 16,210 crores (up by 20% than last year when it was Rs 15,458 crores) which also includes technical education (~ Rs 7300 crores - of which 2200 cr is for IITs, 1300 cr for NITs and 330 cr for IIMs). So, one university’s annual expenses are almost equivalent to 65% of higher and technical education expenses for the whole country. And the 35% private sector players are too young and too small to make a dent in global ranking.
Considering the expenses, the IITs and universities provide a very good “bang for the buck” so as to say. But the problem is division of funds is not tied to any measurable academic outcomes. So the good and the bad get rewarded equally in the Indian academic system.
There are three other factors that play some role in the poor showing by Indian universities. The science, technology, engineering and medicine domain has the maximum output and higher citation count and Indian publication record in these domains are relatively poor. Publications in vernacular language, which is yet to be translated in a language that is accepted by international community has just not begun in India. Compare this with China, which amassed all efforts to translate its academic output to English and suddenly rose on the publication map by 2005/2006. The last factor is that citation takes a positive spin if the researchers network both nationally and in international seminars – this is comparatively very low in India and whether you accept it or not, is dominated by researchers in US/UK/EU institutions.
What should we do?
Rankings are not all about money. The IITs can straight away improve their scores by appointing enough faculty. Most IITs have over 40% of their positions lying vacant. They could aggressively attract international students and faculty. There might be policy issues. With the kind of soft power the IIT council has displayed, working around the law might be easy for them if they choose to. They could quadruple the number of PhDs they produce in four years. Industry linkage and income from the same is another area where IITs and select central universities could work on.
Each of these domains would need legislative support. It would need a drastic reorientation of the philosophy that guides some of our institutions. But much before that it would need a fundamental shift in they way our higher education mandarins think.
Academics like Prof. Manna must first agree that, barring very few pockets of excellences, IITs and leading central and state universities, in general, are no great institutions. Their publication record is good but not exceptional. Their research output is poor. We don’t produce enough good PhDs. We must first agree that we are nowhere near world-class. And once we accept our shortcomings, making a verifiable plan to become better is the way to go.
Blaming the ranking system is not the solution. It reminds me of a Tamil proverb, which loosely translated means ‘One who doesn’t know how to dance, blames the condition of the locale’.
The global ranking system, no doubt is played according to the rules set by the West. But one needs to accept it; there is no alternative. So let us stop blaming the locale, and start getting our dance moves right.