Driving change through rankings: India?s promise

By Dr Anand Kulkarni

With University rankings season in full swing, it is time to consider the impact of how India’s higher education system can be transformed by these rankings. Emerging economies are increasingly engaging with rankings as key strategic and promotional tools to attract and retain students and staff, research funding and enhance reputation. Rankings and reputation feed off each other.

How India shall be affected

The impact of rankings on India can be viewed in general and specific terms. At the general level, they enable existing ranked institutions and potential entrants to benchmark themselves against the world’s best, identify strengths and weaknesses and areas for opportunity as well as to ground aspirations in reality. For a country such as India, dealing with the challenges of providing mass access to education while enhancing quality and accountability would be assisted by observing the world’s best.

In a related matter, India’s higher education sector is characterised by massive gulfs in quality and reputation between its elite Institutions which are represented in the rankings, and the rest of the very large sector which struggles with quality. In the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) rankings, 8 out of 20 ranked Indian institutions (out of 960 in total) were from the premier Indian Institutes of Technology and Science. The recent Times Higher Education Rankings also confirmed these findings. The “missing” next tier of Indian Institutions could obtain value from learning from the premier institutions, noting of course that their missions do vary, while India’s entire educational system could learn some lessons from China.

The importance of looking at rankings

According to a recent survey of Indian students by QS “Like students the world over, those in India typically perceive rankings as closely correlated to institutional reputation, which they view, in turn, as a key factor in optimising their future career opportunities.” Thus, understanding in depth what mobile and motivated Indian students are saying via their assessments of rankings would be of value in understanding how to meet the needs of the ultimate stakeholders, the students.

Further, for the Government of India, international rankings can be an important leveraging tool—linking funding, regulations and the like to perform in rankings. For example, one can envisage “lighter touch” regulations for universities that are ranked in the main rankings scheme. Another strategic approach could be for India to aim for greater participation in sub-rankings such as BRIC Rankings or subject specific rankings as a basis for greater engagement over time with the overall rankings.

A revolution in foreign mobility

India lags on internationalisation parameters, with a somewhat closed higher education system at least in inward mobility. According to the latest Global Innovation Index, India ranks 102nd out of 127 countries in the world on inward tertiary mobility, while the recent QS rankings sees India’s best ranked Institution, the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, with only 4 international staff (out of 466 academic staff in total) and 80 international students, all in post graduate studies, out of 7477 students in total. There is a range of factors in India’s relatively weak internationalisation, including capacity constraints, regulatory issues, and quality factors across the sector, and the absence of strong supporting infrastructure for international students.

As internationalisation features strongly in the university rankings, there is a need to develop a comprehensive internationalisation strategy, which would have as a significant aim, the broadening of the international student base. At present, India’s inward student intake, to the extent that it has any, is dominated by students from neighbouring South Asian Countries (e.g Bhutan), and parts of the Middle East and Africa (All Indian Survey on Higher Education 2015-2016). A more global oriented higher education system can potentially enhance academic reputation and vice- a-versa.

Reputation coupled with research

Another key way in which India can utilise rankings to reform its education system is in its research performance. India’s education system suffers from lack of highly cited research, quality outputs, and a largely absent broader economic system of research and innovation, linking business and university. A great deal of India’s high-quality outputs come from its public research bodies as distinct from Universities. The Leiden Ranking, for example, puts a significant weight on research collaboration domestically, while the others emphasise international collaboration in research outputs. Therefore, if engagement with rankings can lead to transfers of know-how, shared information flows that come with collaboration, then the Indian higher education system and the broader economy will benefit.

A further way that the rankings can be leveraged to improve India’s higher education system is through employer reputation, found only in the QS rankings. A plethora of studies have shown that Indian graduates lack core skills and employability characteristics, according to employers. Having a system which pays greater attention to changing labour market circumstances, both in India and abroad, including placing emphasis on innovation, creativity, teamwork and problem solving as distinct from traditional rote learning, would assist in greater employability.

Domestic rankings should not be ignored

India’s new domestic rankings system contains many important features to drive and shape the development of the sector. It contains metrics in research and teaching excellence, similar to global rankings, which will drive objective performance analysis, domestic competition and internal benchmarking, thus providing a basis for potential entry of institutions into the global ranks. In addition, the domestic rankings cover important India specific features relating to regional diversity, outreach, gender equity, and the inclusion of the disadvantaged in society. As the domestic rankings unfold and mature, India may be in a position to influence the parameters and indicators that the global rankings include. This, in turn, would enhance the reputation of Indian Institutions.

Of course, while rankings can be a valuable tool for promoting reform, this cannot be done without addressing fundamental issues of governance, accountability and transparency.

This article was published in the University World News.

Featured image Source: Visual Hunt