Global rankings and the State of Indian varsities

It is indeed worrying that after more than seven decades of independence we are yet not included in the list of front-runners in education.
Global rankings and the State of Indian varsities

The latest rankings of global universities by two well-known international ranking agencies have just been released. Sadly, no Indian university figures in the list of the top 200 universities. Though I am inclined to take these rankings with some mild and healthy skepticism, it is indeed worrying that after more than seven decades of independence we are yet not included in the list of front-runners in education.

Contrast this with the fact that China has managed an upward graph and in the latest Times Higher Education Rankings, two of its universities are poised to enter the top 10. In fact, China has 13 universities in the list of top 200. In the previous year’s rankings China had seven universities in the top 200. It is interesting to also note that in this year’s QS rankings, Peking University is ranked above Princeton University.

What ails India’s universities? Unlike China’s universities and those of South Korea, which have been making improvements in their rankings year-by-year, Indian universities have not shown any such trends. I looked at some of our well-regarded public universities and was disappointed to note that their rankings have remained stationary and quite low.

The only silver lining is the performance of the Indian Institute of Science. In contrast, we find the rankings of the much-vaunted Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, a little disheartening. To my mind, one of the biggest factors for the low ranking has been the lack of any major innovative activity.

These institutions seem to be shackled by their own lack of genuine effort to break the impasse caused by mediocrity and ineptitude. I have yet to find our universities ready to grapple in a forthright manner with the scourge of inbreeding when it comes to the recruitment of faculty.

If we are to look at the universities that are highly ranked, then among the many common features, we shall find that they shun inbreeding like the plague. There are no centrally driven diktats that prompt such a healthy disdain. It is an unwritten law. On the other hand, most of our public universities tend to indulge in rampant inbreeding. This harms—in significant ways—the quality of their research output.

The other matter that has plagued our universities is the lack of attention to undergraduate programmes. In fact, some of our leading universities have shunned undergraduate programmes altogether. Some years ago, I was told by a distinguished Harvard mathematician that each year the senior most mathematicians at Harvard vie with each other to teach freshman students. I have noticed this in most highly ranked universities.

India has yet to understand the importance of this principle. To add to the problem, even in those institutions that do have undergraduate programmes, most of the programmes are designed in unimaginative ways despite the best efforts of the National Education Policy.

A few days ago, while interacting with undergraduate students at a well-regarded public university I was disturbed by the views of so many of these undergraduates who told me they had entered the university with that their days there would be an unavoidable waste of time.

Finally, our universities—by and large—do not seem to be connected to the idea of the role they can play and need to play in fostering a knowledge economy. Once again, contrast this with the fact that the fastest-growing economic region in the UK is located around Cambridge University. In a 2012 study, it was estimated that the economic activities around the region surrounding Stanford University was estimated to be at $3 trillion.

Dinesh Singh

Former Vice-Chancellor, Delhi University; Adjunct Professor of Mathematics, University of Houston, US

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