Arindam Banik & Tirthankar Nag
In May 1998, Jiang Zemin, then China’s president, discussed with top Chinese academicians to explore basic parameters that would determine world-class universities. Nian Cai Liu of Shanghai Jiao Tong University was assigned the task. It was a conscious decision because engines of future prosperity of a nation are moulded by human capital—Argentina, Mexico and Brazil got stuck in the middle-income trap due to poor quality of higher education.
China’s academic yardsticks were different from those used to identify world-class universities globally. During 1998-2003, Liu’s team worked with governments, universities and higher education stakeholders to figure out the appropriate methodology. In 2003, they published a report, ranking top-500 global higher educational institutions. Called the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), or Shanghai Ranking, it became popular, mirroring EMs’ needs. In recent times, Shanghai Ranking, World University Rankings by Times Higher Education (THE), and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings are sought after.
What are the fundamental differences between these rankings? Shanghai Ranking does not consider an institution’s reputation among academics or employers; it ranks universities on the level of academic research and the number of Nobel prizes won by faculty. Both the THE and QS focus on research standards and quality for their methodology, along with a university’s reputation. As far as methods are concerned, the QS allocates 40% of a university’s total score towards academic reputation. As regards the THE rankings, 15% of the total score is based on teaching reputation measured by asking academics to evaluate quality of teaching.
The key takeaways are: Shanghai Ranking may be considered the most appropriate if one is looking for an institute with high quality research; for well-paid graduate jobs and well-regarded employers, the QS rankings may attract candidates; the THE rankings will attract those who are looking for universities’ research impact and reputation.
Shanghai Ranking is considered as a powerful mechanism to improve higher education in China. Today, China has 45 universities in Shanghai top-500 and is the only country, other than Britain and America, to have two universities in THE’s top-30. In the QS rankings, its six universities now feature among the top universities.
India has the third-largest education system, after the US and China. In 2015, we had 760 universities, 38,498 colleges and 31.56 million enrolled students. Reports suggest a fraction of them are employable. India’s inherited system of producing clerks needs transformation. The HRD ministry perhaps failed to transform it into a vibrant education system. We have a long way to go towards developing knowledge-creation ecosystems and publishing highly-rated journals.
Are government institutions able to deliver on their responsibilities of human capital development and research leadership? Most are busy defending their turfs in a protected market. Some government’s initiatives are promising; others, downright dangerous. For example, the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) was launched in 2016 to rank institutions based on objective criteria.
It has some positives. But it seems this framework has become a vehicle to bury historically-prevailing inefficiencies in higher education. A step in the right direction, one can’t help but notice overtones of outreach and inclusivity, arbitrary selection of perception samples, annual methodological modifications, which THE, QS and Shanghai Ranking et al may have avoided. It is also possible to rank higher education institutes separately based on socially-inclusive criteria if the government is serious about that.
Most private institutions in leadership positions are on contract because of their age. Unable to manage in a fast-paced environment,
many reputed private institutes are near collapse. Often, motivated selection of leadership positions coupled with AICTE’s negative perception of private institutions in general—may be to blame. Despite exemplary performances by a few institutions, they are ignored in important decision-making processes. The IIM Bill adds a peppery twist to internal competition in the sector. The GATS (General Agreement in Trade and Services in education), on the other hand, provides new challenges. Will the government sector be able to compete?
It would be unrealistic to think that any particular policy would fix deeply-entrenched educational inequalities. Keeping a watch on international perspective, benchmarking education policies across countries is important for raising standards and addressing inequality. The moot question is whether rankings are designed for pushing institutes of higher learning towards winning short-term jackpots or they are really strengthening long-term academic outcomes?
Banik is Director and Nag is Dean, Research, IMI, Kolkata