Don't worry about global rankings: IIT Delhi ex-director Surendra Prasad

Surendra Prasad, ex-director IIT Delhi. Illustration: Binay sinha
Surendra Prasad, former director, IIT Delhi, and the man behind the rankings of universities, colleges, and institutes, told Sahil Makkar that his biggest challenge was to evaluate and authenticate the documents submitted by private institutions. Edited excerpts:

How will the recently released government ranking of universities help students choose the right institute?

It should help in some way. Depending on their inclination, they could look at the overall rank or the college rank on any one of the following major parameters: Teaching-Learning, Research, Graduation Outcomes and Perception, etc. This is certainly one of the objectives of the ranking, although I am not sure whether at this stage it can be the main objective. The basic purpose was to make the general public and students aware of the relative standing of a university or a college. Another major objective of doing this exercise was to motivate institutions to improve on quality parameters, and undertake research.

Indian universities don’t fare well on QS Rankings or Shanghai Rankings. Was that also the reason to start our own ranking system?   

I do not see that as a reason for India Rankings. Having said that, it can put us into a habit of preparing ourselves better for international rankings and consequently better visibility. When you develop systems to create and maintain data on your outputs and outcomes, it empowers you to project yourself better. 

How were the rankings different this year from last year and how robust is the ranking process?

When you are doing something for the first time on such a large scale, it is possible to overlook certain things. That is certainly a part of the story here. We had a certain insight to start with and we did the best possible in a short time. This time we had both the benefit of hindsight and more time to think through many things. Thus, we could make some important improvements. I think we are moving towards a robust system and we are more confident of the results this year.

What are the changes that you introduced this year?

Certain changes became necessary for clarity. For instance, under the Teaching, Learning Resources, the intention of the sub-parameters on expenditure per student was to ascertain how much was spent on regular education-related activities. Because of lack of clarity, several institutions included expenditure on buildings and civil infrastructure, which is not a regular activity. This led to some awkward situations. Another weakness lay in the metrics used to create scores on certain parameters. A very simplistic percentile metric had been used, and it often was not differentiating enough in the relative levels of activities in various institutions in regard to certain important parameters. To illustrate, there could be a sharp jump in the numbers of research papers published as we go from one institute to the next best. Unfortunately, the percentile metric would be insensitive to such sharp differences. On the other hand, we also need to provide for a lot of variations in these numbers, considering the diversity of the institutions involved. Use of a percentile metric can produce some unpredictable results in such cases. Since this time we had the experience and the time to think through, we could arrive at much better and suitably optimised logarithmic metrics, which could meet the needs better.

Would you need to change the method next year?

A review will happen shortly and certain tweaking could take place, but as I said, we are moving towards a robust system.

This year you included employers’ perceptions. How was industry involved?

Last year we could only focus on peer-perception because data bases of eminent academicians and researchers could be more readily created in the short time available with us. This year we included employer perception but this was a bit of a challenge. We compiled lists of employers with the help of educational institutions as well as with the help of industry bodies like the Confederation of Indian Industry, and reached out to the human resource personnel of several companies. We reached out to more than 15,000 HR professionals from 5,000 big and small companies or their subsidiaries. Similarly, we reached out to around 15,000 peers — eminent people from academia, research, and industry. Although the number of absolute respondents was not very large, with only 10 per cent responding after repeated reminders, the volume of feedback in terms of votes cast in favour of various institutions was substantial. We had sought their opinions on 10 best institutions in each discipline, both at the national and the regional levels. Roughly, we got about 15,000 votes under each of the two categories of voters, viz. peers and employers. What I am not personally happy about is the component on public perception. We had solicited feedback from the public through newspaper advertisements. Fears have been expressed that some aggressive institutes could manage more votes via less than genuine inputs. This might change in the future.

What were the key challenges while ranking these universities and colleges?

When people participate, they want to put their best foot forward. The reverse is also true. Some institutions are not careful enough while supplying the data. Fortunately, we could use the services of experts and volunteers to scrutinise the data very carefully and identify possible errors, inflations and inaccuracies. Whenever we saw problems with the data of any institute, we engaged with them on a one-to-one basis. We exchanged thousands of emails and phone calls. In some cases, we had to ask them to share appropriate documents to ascertain the accuracy of the data. Although very laborious, we ensured that for the top 400-500 institutes, we are 90-95 per cent confident about the data authenticity.

Why didn’t top colleges such as St Stephen’s, Hansraj and Hindu participate in the rankings for the second time?

The response from the Delhi University college fraternity was poor. This was despite our keen efforts to persuade them to participate. We have now heard that at the time of the rankings several of these colleges were preparing for NAAC (National Assessment and Accreditation Council) accreditation. Data preparation for both rankings and NAAC accreditation requires a lot of effort. In the first year, there was hardly any response from the Delhi University colleges. That may be because of a poor understanding of rankings or perhaps, because not many people were aware of those.

Why are Indian institutes continuously slipping on international rankings?

The parameters of international rankings vary a lot and also keep changing. I believe there would be many reasons for our relatively poor showing there. Our spending on higher education is certainly much smaller than that in some more advanced countries. Many top institutions in the US attract the best talent as graduate students and faculty from all over the world. The best of our own research minds look up to them. I am not sure whether it is fair to compare our institutions with the top international ones in a holistic sense.

Do you think bringing international students and faculty would help change perceptions about our colleges and get us better rankings?   

That is another reason why we should not be bothered too much about international rankings. They have an agenda and one of their agendas is to get more foreign students to their campuses because that is an important source for revenue for them. The foreign students pay much higher fees than domestic students. On the other hand, we have so many students of our own to look after. We do get foreign faculty to a limited extent in our best institutions. The kind of international faculty we would want here would attract much higher compensations in their own countries. One can’t have a situation where an Indian professor of the same calibre is getting paid less than his foreign counterparts. But I am sure that initiatives like the GIAN program of the government will help.

What is your opinion of new private universities which are hiring foreign faculty?

I am not sure how they do it. I suspect that these institutes would be charging very large fees from their students. But if sustainable, this is a good omen.

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