Measure up, or secede
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Another round of college rankings, another set of injured explanations in India. After the QS rankings earlier this month showed that no Indian university figured in the top 200, the Times Higher Education (THE) World Rankings have confirmed the obvious about Indian colleges. The IITs have continued to slide, the big metropolitan universities don't even figure in the top 400, and the surprise entrance of Panjab University in the 226-250 bracket does not mitigate the disaster. This survey uses 13 separate performance indicators to reflect a university's strengths in five areas — teaching, research, citation, industry income and international outlook.
There is no consensus among college ranking systems on criteria, and their methods don't even overlap much. US News and World Report, for instance, looks at admission rates, test scores, peer assessments and student teacher evaluations. The THE rankings stress faculty research, professionally successful alumni, etc. Academic Ranking of World Universities looks at class size, teacher-student ratios, spending per student and instructor educational attainment. But any way you cut it, India's colleges are irrelevant. The education establishment, led by the HRD ministry, has complained about the rankings themselves, saying that our institutions do not pitch themselves to global surveys, that their context and aims should not be compared to wealthy research universities in the US, which rule the rankings. But the fact remains that these are the measures the world uses to compare universities, and other countries are clambering ahead, investing serious resources in higher education. China has registered impressive improvements, and Singapore recently broke into the ranks of top universities, pouring money into their campuses, recruiting faculty. The Nanyang Technological University has moved up 98 spots in the last three years, while the National University of Singapore is now in 26th place.
Meanwhile in India, despite the "big bang" that UPA 2 promised, higher education continues to moulder. Public universities are shackled by faculty issues and the lack of autonomy in financial, administrative and academic matters, private universities have proliferated but have patchy standards. Elite students exit the system altogether, paying foreign universities enormous fees. And yet, India is reluctant to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem. When the programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) put India in the 71st position, out of 73, the test was declared faulty. But universities can't have it both ways, seeking a place in the global education marketplace, but claiming loftier goals when they don't measure up. The IITs, for instance, are only too happy to talk up their hypercompetitive entrance exam, or cite the international press describing them as "Harvard, MIT and Princeton rolled into one". But when the numbers roll in, they are rejected as alien standards. They should either pull out of the race, or compete with the best.