Steep learning curve

That the world’s largest democracy, which prides itself on its scientific and IT prowess, figuring only in the top 251-300 ranks of the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings thus far should have been a matter of some concern for policymakers. That it has slipped out of the top 300 rankings for the first time since 2012 must surely set the alarm bells ringing in the Ministry of Human Resource Development. In contrast 24 Chinese universities figure in the top 200 rankings. India's best-ranked university, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, slipped out of the 251-300 cohort into the 301-350 cohort in the latest THE rankings, principally on account of a significant fall in its citation impact, an indicator of a diminution in cutting-edge research. On the whole, Indian higher education has not acquitted itself all that creditably. Although 56 universities figured in the rankings this year from 49 the year before, seven fell into a lower band, the bulk remained unchanged and only three improved their position. IIT Ropar, IIT Gandhinagar, and the Institute of Chemical Technology were among the new rankersin this year’s list.

THE’s more granular analysis points to a key weakness in Indian institutions of higher learning. It said Indian institutes performed strongly in terms of “teaching environment” and “industry income” but poorly when it came to “international outlook”. In all fairness, the National Democratic Alliance appears to have understood the scope of these infirmities in its first term. In June last year, then Union HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar had announced a major plan for the University Grants Commission (UGC), the regulator for higher education, to grant some measure of autonomy to 60 institutions, including private institutions. Though this initiative would obviously exclude the technical education institutes, which come under a separate regulator, and the IITs and IIMs, which were granted autonomy some years previously, it was seen as a great leap forward for higher education in India. “Autonomy” would mean more freedom for institutes to start their own courses, create syllabi, launch research programmes, hire foreign faculty, enrol foreign students, set fees, and initiate international research collaborations. In effect, this amounted to no or negligible dependence on the UGC. It is too early to judge how much of this new-found freedom the institutions concerned have enjoyed and how they have exercised it and it would be unfair to expect significant changes in the THE rankings as a result of it. Certainly, the exercise requires a far higher degree of accountability than the previous UGC controls demanded, a behaviourial change that academic administrators alone will take time to absorb. It may be at least half a decade before the impact is visible on higher education standards. But the rise and rise of China, which has had a two-decade head-start over India in terms of international academic collaborations, has demonstrated that the spin-offs from global knowledge-sharing is enormous.

The other dimension, of course, is that the bulk of the institutions in the higher rankings features those focused on science and/or technology. The liberal arts universities feature much lower, perhaps because society sees greater employability for science, IT, and engineering graduates with their supposed specificity than the unspecified scope of research in disciplines such as history, economics, literature, and so on. But with innovation increasingly becoming the sole competitive advantage for corporations these days, even Silicon Valley giants pay a premium for graduates with backgrounds in both science and arts, to encourage blue-sky thinking. The Indian education milieu, from primary level upward, is some distance from promoting that sort of education. If it did, India could overtake China in the THE rankings anytime it wanted.

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