'Rankings do not matter to us'

Some academics dismiss international rankings, while others quarrel with the yardsticks adopted to evaluate Indian universities, report Prasun Chaudhuri and Avijit Chatterjee

By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 31.10.13

Panjab University's University's emergence as the country's top university in the 2013 Times Higher Education (THE) World University rankings has raised many eyebrows. More astonishingly, the four Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) — Delhi, Kanpur, Kharagpur and Roorkee — figure in the top 351-400 global institutes, but have been outranked by Panjab University, which is among the top 250.

"We may not be good enough to figure among the top 100, but are not that bad either," exclaims Kasturi Lal Chopra, a former director of IIT-Kharagpur and an emeritus professor at IIT-Delhi.

That may be true, but some Indian universities are seemingly not bothered about global rankings. "Rankings do not matter to us and we do not hanker for them," stresses Calcutta University's pro-vice-chancellor Dhrubajyoti Chattopadhyay.

He says the university participates in rankings if it is approached by any agency. It recently took part in a national survey conducted by Nielsen, the research company, and secured the second spot. "Our strength has always been academics, so if we are judged on this aspect we should be among the top 200 or 250 universities in the world," Chattopadhyay adds.

Indeed, many Indian academics quarrel with THE's evaluation parameters. "The IITs refused to participate because these rankers have odd parameters. As our motto has always been nation building, we offer many diverse courses such as naval architecture, and have many small departments. Naturally, their research output is not high," Chopra says.

He contends the ranking agency does not take into account such diverse factors and "compares apples with oranges". He also rues the fact that THE ranked the IITs based on secondary sources (such as alumni and industry) since they didn't participate in the survey.

All the experts The Telegraph spoke to concur that rankings would only matter if the evaluation takes into account the ground realities in India. Arun Nigavekar, former vice chancellor, Pune University, and founder of the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) which grades Indian colleges, has serious doubts about the evaluation method followed by THE. He says, "It is quite surprising that Panjab University has beaten all other universities in the country. In a country like India, the ranking index of educational institutes should be different and not on a par with that of other developed nations."

Nigavekar says that there are around 1.25 crore students in around 30,000 colleges in 609 universities in the country; the number will balloon to 4-5 crore in another eight to 10 years. Not all institutes follow the same education standards or have access to the same infrastructure. "So to grade these institutes you need comprehensive data. India needs to follow a comprehensive grading strategy. A foreign agency will not be able to take into account all these diverse parameters."

Even so, Chopra concedes that the IITs are way behind top international institutes such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in the US, in terms of creating new technology or a knowledge base.

Caltech has been at the top of the THE rankings for the past three years. Sandip Chakrabarti, dean (academics) at S.N. Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences, Calcutta, and a Caltech alumnus, says, "Caltech has been at the forefront of scientific research for decades. During any point of time it has four to five Nobel laureates (overall 32 Nobel laureates) as full-time faculty members. When you have such stalwarts it is expected that your research will be top class (current THE score 98.2) and it's widely cited by researchers across the world (citation score: 99.8)."

Since it's the academic home of Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the US National Science Foundation, its industry linkage is also enviable (score 91.2). "Even though the institute is small in size (124 acres), its research output is the highest," Chakrabarti adds.

In India, however, research is hardly on the agenda of institutes. "Most of them are just teaching institutes; they are not driven by research. They disseminate knowledge but are nowhere in terms of knowledge creation. Most ranking organisations all over the world evaluate an institute by research output," says Premchand Palety, chief executive, C-Fore, which ranks Indian educational institutes. This deficit makes Indian institutes averse to participation in rankings.

"Besides, our universities don't document their systems, processes and outputs. So when any agency requests them for data, they don't have it ready and perhaps they think it's a waste of time collecting it. Our universities are cocooned in a comfort zone," he says.

Even Calcutta University's Chattopadhyay admits that the university would fare miserably on other parameters, such as infrastructure. According to him, Panjab University came up trumps because it was able to satisfy the ranking authorities on several parameters. "We do not have an expansive campus or proper hostel facilities. Our international outlook suffers because we can't offer in-campus accommodation to international students or faculty members. Neither do we have enough funds, as our fees are nominal."

Still, at least one Indian university is trying to figure out where it went wrong. Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, has set up an internal assessment cell to find out its shortfalls, if any. Says Sudhir Kumar Sopori, JNU vice chancellor, "Although we have been ranked the No.1 institute by most national rankings, we've been unable to meet the parameters set by foreign rankers," he says. JNU doesn't have faculty members or many students from foreign countries.

"THE rank may not help us get more government funds, but would help us boost our image abroad and draw a larger number of international students," he concludes.