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Column: The growing distance in education

Chinese varsities outscore their Indian counterparts because they have institutionalised incentives for research

In addition to trade, higher education is becoming a major sphere of divergence in capacities and capabilities between China and India. The latest Times Higher Education rankings for Asian universities has 21 universities from the Chinese mainland among top 100 universities in Asia. This is an increase from 18 last year. The tally looks more impressive by including universities from Hong Kong and Macau, both of which, as special administrative regions (SARs), are now parts of China. Hong Kong has six universities in the list, while Macau has one.

The University of Tokyo, National University of Singapore and the University of Hong Kong are the top three Asian universities. Peking University and Tsinghua University from China are right behind at four and five. China has overtaken Japan in terms of having the largest number of universities in the top 100. While mainland China now has 21 universities in the elite list, Japan has 19.

The Indian performance has been worse than the previous year. From ten in the top 100 last year, Indian universities are down to nine. The Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bangalore is the highest-ranked, at 37. Others in the list include Panjab University (38), IIT Roorkee (55), IIT Bombay (57), IIT Delhi (65), IIT Kharagpur (69), IIT Madras (78), Aligarh Muslim University (90) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (96).

Other than the reducing number, the concern is over most of the Indian universities slipping in ranks. Apart from the IISc Bangalore and IIT Bombay—the two new entrants—and IIT Roorkee, whose rank has improved from 59 to 55, all other Indian universities in the top 100 list show lower ranks this year. The sharpest drops are for IIT Kharagpur (45 to 69) and Aligarh Muslim University (80 to 90). Some reputed universities like IIT Kanpur, IIT Guwahati and Jadavpur University are not in the list any more.

Why are Indian universities faring increasingly worse in global and regional rankings than the Chinese?

The Times University Rankings are based on performances across a group of parameters. These include teaching, international outlook, industry income, research and citations. Among these, Indian universities perform particularly poorly in international outlook and research.

International outlook measures the university’s global collaborations and partnerships along with the proportions of foreign faculty and foreign students. IIT Delhi has an international outlook score of 14.8, while IIT Kharagpur has 14.2. The Nanjing University of China, one of the middle-level Chinese universities among those in the top 100, has an international outlook score of 50.2. The Wuhan University, another similarly placed university from China, has a score of 33.1.

Research is becoming a critical handicap for Indian universities in global and regional rankings. Phil Baty, Editor of the Times Higher Education Rankings, attributed the performance of Chinese universities to the commitment to higher education by a country prepared to invest heavily in research and development. With respect to India, the observation was on the critical importance of investing in research and strengthening links with other institutions.

The difference in research scores between the Indian and Chinese universities is worth noting. The IISc Bangalore is ahead of the rest of the Indian Universities with a score of 39.5. The remaining Indian universities are bunched within 24.0-10.0. The two top Chinese universities—Peking and Tsinghua—have scores of 61.9 and 68.3, while Fudan and Shanghai Jiaotong Universities are at 34.4 and 37.9. Most of the middle level Chinese Universities, like Nanjing and Wuhan Universities mentioned earlier, have research scores on par with the Indian IITs in the top 100.

The citation scores reflect interesting insights. Citation measures the frequency of reference to a particular research or academic work by other researchers revealing the traction gained by the former in ongoing research and among peers. Despite a low research score of 10.4, Panjab University has a remarkably high citation score of 84.4, which has helped it to rise to 38. Citation scores of Indian universities are better than research scores pointing to fairly wide circulation of the research by faculty in global academic circles.

The low research scores of top Indian universities compared with the Chinese is a result of the lower volume of research coming out from the former. The good quality of this limited research, as reflected by citations, is not good enough for higher rankings.

The Chinese experience points to greater collaboration with international universities and making domestic ones attractive for foreign students and faculty as necessary conditions for global academic recognition. Such collaborations and attractiveness not only increase revenues and the scope for greater cutting-edge research, but also better branding.

The enormous effort made by Chinese universities in augmenting research is equally critical. A lot of commercially applied scientific research in China is now being done in universities in active collaboration with industry. Research in Chinese universities has also been encouraged by incentives offered to faculty. By building capacities and institutionalising incentives for quality research, China has been able to significantly expand quality research output.

It is a pity that such capacities and incentives are much less in scale and scope even in the best Indian universities.

Till these improve and till Indian universities revamp their international outlooks, they would stay well behind China in rankings.

The author is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies in the National University of Singapore. Mail: isasap@nus.edu.sg
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First published on: 17-06-2015 at 00:19 IST