Indian colleges' global rankings show why we need more researchers

India continues to defend its position as the third most represented country on THE Asia Rankings 2018 despite several of its Universities slipping in positions. While India has 12 new entrants in the elite list, the absence of any in the Top 25 is a discomfiture. These two writers debate how India can improve its overall global ranking when it comes to Universities and argue that better research attracts a greater reputation and conversely better reputation attracts greater funding and increased collaborations.

The modern world rankings of educational institutions began in 2003 with a mandate given by the Chinese Government to the Shanghai Jiao Tong University to benchmark Chinese Universities against their Western counterparts. Born as the Shanghai Jiao Tong Rankings, the lists are today popularly known as the Academic Rankings of World Universities (ARWU). The year 2004 saw the birth of the combined THE-QS World University Rankings. In 2009 THE split to form its own independent rankings (published first in 2010). Today, there are over a dozen ranking agencies across the world creating a range of lists for a variety of purposes helping students, parents, and Governments form informed opinions based on this data. India too launched its own National Rankings of Universities (NIRF) in 2015 with the first list being published in April 2016.

The Indian Context

Before gauging the significance of the movements in THE 2018 rankings, it is imperative to understand the landscape in which India’s educational system operates in. India’s university system as it exists today started in 1857 with three essentially British creations – the Universities of Madras, Calcutta, and Bombay. As per the Government of India’s AISHE 2016-17 report, India, today has 864 Universities, 40,026 Colleges, and 11,669 Stand Alone Institutions. Spread across every state and union territory, these cater to a total enrolment of 35.7 Mn students, achieving a GER of 25.2% in the 18-23 age bracket. Apart from the usual classifications as Public & Private, Universities in India are broadly classified as Institutions of National Importance, Central, State, State Private, and Deemed to Be Universities. Colleges, on the other hand, are differentiated as Public, Private, Government Aided, Affiliated, and so on. If these classifications were not entangled enough themselves, the system is further plagued by overtly complex regulations governing the formation, financing, and functioning of the regulatory authorities such as the UGC, AICTE, NBA, NAAC, and other organizations.

Envisioned Growth

With specific reference to THE Asia Rankings 2018, one can clearly see the dominant role played by East & South-East Asia, with the big dragon – China, grabbing 5 of the Top 10 and 30 of the Top 100 positions. China’s exemplary performance may be credited to the vision of the then President Jiang Zemin who created Project 211 and 985 in the early 90’s. In 2015, China announced the ‘Double World Class’ project with India making a similar positive move titled ‘Institutions of Eminence’ in 2017, under the leadership of PM Modi.

India's Performance in THE Asia 2018

India continues to defend its position as the third most represented country on the list despite several of its Universities slipping in positions. While the number of Universities has increased from 33 to 42, one must note it was 33 in the Top 300 last year as against 42 in Top 350 this year. While India has 12 new entrants in the elite list, the absence of any in the Top 25 is a discomfiture. While India has shown improved performance in 12 out of the 13 metrics, rankings being driven by percentile comparisons, especially the pace of improvement is much less when benchmarked against Universities in Singapore, Hong Kong, China, South Korea, and Japan – all of whom have Universities in the Top 10 of the rankings. Clearly, India is struggling to maintain its standing in the face of fierce competition from the east.

What measures has India taken?

Global rankings are based on output parameters and rich data. In recent years, Indian institutions have increasingly made available the relevant data and proactively participated in global assessments. This is an encouraging sign.

The approval of the Union Cabinet towards the 1650 Crore Prime Minister's Research Fellows (PMRF) scheme is a monumental step. Through this scheme, PM has re-emphasized the importance of innovation and technology for the progress and development of the nation. State led initiatives such as the Karnataka State Universities Rating Framework are instrumental in improving the quality of Universities at the State level.

What more can India do?

Almost all global rankings place heavy emphasis on research & reputation – with one greatly influencing the other. Better research attracts a greater reputation and conversely better reputation attracts greater funding and increased collaborations.

While the US conducts most of its basic research in Universities, India, following the Soviet model, undertakes much of its basic research in specialized research institutions. With a tiny 1,41,037 students enrolled in Ph.D. (0.4% of total enrolment), India has a long way to go in producing more research scholars from Universities. While our National Labs should be evaluated based on the technologies they produce, the mandate for Universities should be to produce quality manpower for research. While India tends to perform well on quantity, quality is a concern. High impact research & publications in leading peer-reviewed journals is the need of the hour. We need more public funding for research including the creation of a National Foundation for Research in Science, Technology, and Humanities with an annual non-lapsable grant of at least  Rs 5000 crore to give research grants on a competitive non-discriminatory basis.

State Governments must create an incentive-based grants model for well-performing Universities. An audit of affiliated colleges by State Universities is also a critical need. State Universities with over 750 affiliated colleges become an administrative nightmare. Splitting a large University into manageable smaller units will increase efficiency and productivity. 

Finally, as a nation, it is imperative that we establish a well-structured and professionally managed higher educational system while removing contaminated procedures, controlling malpractice, and lessening administrative abuse, thus placing a governance-based and an objective-oriented higher education structure on the world map that our future generations can be proud of. If this is done, rankings will follow.

Mohandas Pai is Chairman of Manipal Global Institution and former director of Infosys
Dr Karthick Sridhar, vice-chairman of Indian Centre for Academic Rankings & Excellence (ICARE) is an acknowledged thought leader in higher education with special interest in global rankings


Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.