Closing ranks with higher education

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Updated: April 27, 2016 8:57:50 AM

A robust ranking system could possibly remove stifling government restrictions on higher education institutions

The Indian government recently released its first ranking of higher education institutions. The methodology uses criteria borrowed from international rankings, as well as domestically-specific criteria. The motivation for this exercise was the poor performance of Indian higher education institutions in global rankings. What do we learn from the rankings, and where does India go from here?

First, the rankings seem plausible, though there are some surprises here and there, according to commentators who know the set of Indian higher education institutions better than I do. No ranking system is perfect, but this one seems to have been carefully constructed, and introduces transparency where there was little or none before. This transparency means that inaccurate reporting of data has a good chance of being revealed over time. The ranking is based on a very broad range of factors, organised into clusters of attributes, but the components can be observed and compared.

Let’s take an example. The head of IIT Kanpur expressed dismay that his institution was not at the top of the engineering category, a distinction taken by IIT Madras. The overall index was not greatly different: 81.07 versus 89.42. However, in the sub-category of Research, Professional Practice & Collaborative Performance (RPC), IIT(K) ranked third, only one rank behind IIT(M). On the other hand, for the sub-category of Teaching, Learning and Resources, IIT(M) was also second, but IIT(K) was only tenth. Each sub-category has numerical scores, and there are further detailed measures within each such grouping. Hence students, faculty and administrators can all examine the data and decide how and where they want to compete. For example, IIT Bombay, second overall, can point to its top position in RPC, which might be most important for some of its constituents. And so on.

How this will play out remains to be seen. Once data is available, others can construct their own rankings based on this data, with different weights, perhaps, and can even combine the data with other factors. For example, some enterprising company could combine this data with information about the location of the institution: students might care about the nature of the city or neighbourhood, or the demography of the local population. The US is well known for having different kinds of university rankings produced by different private (and some public) organisations. There can be dynamic competition among ranking-providers as well as among those being ranked.

This may sound somewhat chaotic. Rankings can sometimes go awry. Before the financial crisis of 2008, the credit ratings (a kind of scoring and approximate ranking) of rating agencies for derivatives and mortgage backed securities broke down, failing to reflect accurately the quality of those financial assets. But the problems in that case had to do with how the ratings agencies were compensated—by the sellers of the assets—and by a lack of competition (so that poor quality rating methods did not get challenged). If Indian higher education institutions can influence those doing the rankings, that would create an analogous problem. For example, I have seen concerns about politician-owned private institutions having influence on how the government rates them.

Protecting any organisation that produces rankings from the influence of those being ranked is an important requirement, and it does seem that the current exercise is quite objective and open in this respect. No doubt, those institutions that seem surprisingly high in the rankings will receive additional scrutiny from the media or from rival organisations. One argument that has come up is that the government has produced an imperfect ranking, and this will mislead people who are inclined to trust the government as a reliable guide. This seems somewhat unlikely in modern India, and the notion that one should do nothing unless it is perfect is also untenable.

All in all, the ranking of Indian higher education institutions is an excellent step forward, and its initial implementation has been solid. Whether the ranking system encourages more foreign students to come to India (as Kaushik Basu has recommended as a goal, and which I discussed in my last column) is hard to predict. As I have argued, there are many other factors which might swamp a purely domestic ranking table in determining the choices of foreign students. But it is likely to help domestic students weigh their options, and it can well be a guide for the government in deciding where to invest in making some Indian higher education institutions world-class.

Ultimately, however, what India needs is much greater investment in higher education, much more than the government can afford. Allowing freer entry by foreign institutions is essential in that respect. Here also, a domestic ranking system will be valuable, so that a foreign reputation is not inappropriately applied to an Indian subsidiary. There is one more possibility lurking in the background. Kaushik Basu, among others, has recommended a major overhaul of the way that the higher education sector is regulated. A robust ranking system opens up the possibility of removing stifling government restrictions on higher education institutions, and allowing informed choice by students and parents to substitute for bureaucratic, top-down controls. Let the reforms begin.

The author is professor of economics, University of California, Santa Cruz

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