After every beauty contest or cinema star rankings there is a fair amount of controversies. Debates emanate among friends and on a large scale between activists and organizers. Questions are raised whether something abstract can be ranked scientifically. Education industry is no different; to be precise university rankings is no different. Some love it others hate it but the fact is when prominent newspapers scream about the achievements and pathetic performance of universities in the rankings, you just can’t ignore it.

Rankings are as old as the universities itself. While earlier it was mostly perception based and word of mouth dissemination of opinions on colleges based on individual experiences. There were few sector based and regional rankings by some magazines and newspapers. World rankings on a larger scale by prominent agencies and media companies are more of a recent phenomenon. The first and credible world ranking was first published in 2003 by Shanghai Jiao Tong University. It’s called Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU). The last decade saw emergence of lot of rankings by different media companies and agencies in various countries. Many of them were ad hoc but few have become a regular feature. Among many, few which stand out for their credibility and exhaustive research are ARWU, Times Higher Education World University Rankings, QS World University Rankings and Leiden Rankings. These rankings also faced a lot of criticisms and their methodology was repeatedly questioned, it’s still questioned. But they stand tall because they were open to feedbacks, improved with every edition, they developed robust research methodologies, were transparent and been consistent over an extended period of time.

Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) conducted by Shanghai Ranking Consultancy among other criteria stresses on number of papers published in renowned journals like Nature and Science etc. Lot of emphasis is given to awards garnered by the Institute’s faculty and alumni especially Nobel Prize and Field Medals. This has also been the reason for criticism of this ranking that the primary objective of an Institute which should be teaching is undermined in this survey.

ARWU Rankings

The erstwhile THE-QS World University Rankings broke off with Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) and came up with their own set of rankings called Times Higher Education World University Rankings in 2009. This was in association with Thomson Reuters. The methodology included 13 indicators on the basis of which universities were ranked. The research methods are pretty robust and perhaps one of the best seen so far in the industry. It also received its share of criticism on small sample size and skew towards citations in English publications.

THE Rankings

QS World Universities Rankings is based on the original methodology used by THE-QS World University rankings. QS retained the rights for the same. Over the years the survey has fine tuned itself and added more data points to make it more exhaustive. It has been criticized for the skew towards reputational rankings because it depends a lot on the peer group review and recruiters review.

QS Rankings

CWTS Leiden Rankings is perhaps the only ranking purely based on statistical analysis of books and papers published. This unique method of ranking gives surprising results where sometimes universities at the top in other surveys are pushed to lower ranks. However the method is transparent and it gives a fresh perspective to somewhat similar methods used by others. The key indicators used in these rankings are – mean citation score, mean normalized citation score, proportion of top 10% publications and collaborative publications with industries, academics of different countries etc.

Indian Ranking Scenario

In India, University Rankings is very recent. Ministry of HRD set up National Institutional Ranking Framework last year. They came up with their first findings this year. Though a great initiative and a very comprehensive methodology were laid down but experts feel it was not executed professionally. There were also criticisms that government should stay away from such exercises as it looks like their own PR exercise. However many academicians have welcomed this initiative. If done meticulously and transparently this can help Indian Universities to enhance their performance and gear up for international rankings. In coming years the teething problems will iron out and we hope to see a world class ranking here.

Most of the reputed national magazines like India Today and Outlook conduct an annual survey of Indian institutes but is limited to colleges and not universities. Career 360 is perhaps the only magazine which ranks universities. Most of such rankings here in India is more of a top of mind recall exercise where experts choose the colleges based on secondary data. Many prominent colleges have altogether abstained from participating in domestic rankings.

Indian media should play a constructive role in identifying good work done by our Institutes, identifying people doing outstanding research and innovation in our Institutes. They should encourage Institutes to participate in their surveys by making it more transparent and robust. We must have our own superior eco system which compels universities to do a great job.

India has around 761 universities. It is really sad to see none in the top slot of the world ranking. We fail to get a decent place even for our star institutions. Indian Institute of Science is perhaps the only silver lining which ranks 60 in Physical Science stream in the Leiden Ranking. The 107 year old public university leads in all other rankings among Indian institutes by garnering rank 301 in ARWU, 251-300 in THE and  147 in QS.

top 400

If we do a bit of analysis of the latest ARWU rankings we find that we have just one university figuring in the list of top 400 universities. US have 125, UK has 33 and China too has 37. But this may not concern us much as they are all large developed old economies. What should concern us is that a developing nation like Brazil has 4 Universities in the top 400. It shows how they are focusing on top quality research and education to ride the development bandwagon. There are many who would criticize and belittle this whole concept of rankings and surely some do have valid points but to justify zero score in the top 100 is not acceptable. There are other interesting ways to prove the world that we invented zero.

Why do Indian Universities fail at International Rankings?

To say they fail is too harsh. The right words should be why our Institutes are not aligned to the foreign rankings. Most of the universities in India will have multiple colleges at various locations within the city/state imparting similar courses. This is unlike west where a university is a large single unit. Hence a University here will have some good colleges and some not that good and hence diluting the overall quality of the University. This is true for large public universities; things are changing with many private universities being set up which are more like a single entity. Hence to compare a Delhi University with Harvard will be an anomaly.

We got our independence some seven decades back and few of our best Institutes were set up then. We surely lose on the experience parameter. Though new methodology in the rankings nullify this factor by giving weights to recent papers, research etc. but one cannot ignore pedagogy and the credibility it brings with it. We are a poor developing nation and our academic requirement is different from the developed world. Our universities have to focus on getting more and more students educated at an economical price hence the research and papers writings take a back seat. This is one of the important parameters in the world rankings and we lose terribly here.

However, we cannot escape the fact that except a handful of our institutes others are not even in the consideration set of the ranking surveys. We need to stress a lot on research and should be writing path breaking papers. We need to work a bit more smartly here with an eye on ranking requirements. Instead of publishing papers in non indexed journals it should be done in specific magazines which are endorsed by the foreign agencies. We should strive to make our work worthy enough to be published in quality journals like Nature and Science. There is no harm in putting a resource in the Institute to assist and guide researchers to pursue projects in unexplored directions and get their work published in relevant journals. Quality research without compromising the core objective of imparting knowledge is the way to go. Government, Industry and private funding agencies should encourage and support institutes to pursue ground breaking research. Universities should also encourage their research scholars to utilize government schemes like DST-SERB “High risk – High Reward” projects.

It is a fact we need to jack up the quality of institutes, teaching and hence the quality students. For quality research we need money, for money we need more high paying students. For high paying students we need international and Indian students who travel for quality education. And to lure international students we need a decent position in world rankings. We need to gear up to the fact that university ranking is a reality and unless we score high here, our quality, research and papers will be questioned. We may not have enough money but surely have the talent; many of our countrymen doing wonderful work in foreign universities are a testimony to that. We seriously need to push this.