British educationist Alick Maclean undertook arguably one of the earliest attempts at producing a university ranking system. Maclean’s study Where We Get Our Best Men (1900), which betrays late Victorian England’s obsession with its own laurels, remained unnoticed outside the university circuits in England. However, more than a hundred years later, the context, connotations and the scope of such rankings have changed dramatically. With the inclusion of higher education as an “internationally traded” service in the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), universities have become commodities that must sell to sustain themselves in the globally-competitive education industry.
Rankings are loudly advertised and have become the very touchstone of marketability. Even in a welfare State like India, where the bulk of higher education is Government-aided and therefore beyond the pale of market vagaries, there has been, of late, a near-feverish fixation with rankings. And while (because) Indian universities weren’t performing too well at Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) or Webometrics world rankings, we introduced leagues of our own in the form of National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) and National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF). To many of the stakeholders, “ranking” is an unwarranted western import which puts the institutions of developing countries at a natural disadvantage.
With their emphasis on measuring research output in terms of publications in English language journals, the global system of accreditation perpetuates the dominance of Anglo-American and to a lesser extent, European institutions. Besides the system of peer-review and mutual-referencing aren’t the most transparent of academic practices. Since the Government appears keen on incrementally linking an institution’s domestic and international standings with the volume and the manner of funding, some even suspect that the entire hoopla is a decoy for privatisation.
And then there are those critics who believe that at a time when the majority of university graduates, as highlighted in the Government’s own findings, are unemployable, our pursuit of global stature reeks of waylaid competitive nationalism, hollow chest-thumping and the general lethargy of a stagnated education sector. They argue, with some merit, that it would profit the universities more if the staff are mobilised towards research and teaching instead of tedious report compilation. Till a few years ago, before the launch of NAAC and NIRF, many believed that better rankings accrue from user-friendly websites and perception management.
Under the circumstances, quality becomes a procedural casualty and our estimation of a university’s true worth, based on a set of universal parameters, remains delusional and misleading. For example, in several assessment paradigms, the share of international faculty and foreign students substantially propels an institution’s ranking. While this may not be the strength of Indian universities, not many countries of the world can boast of a higher education system which is more committed to affirmative action and social inclusion, than our own.
The massification of education and a steep rise in enrollment rates may not deliver immediate dividends but these steps will see India rise as a leader in research and development (R&D) in times to come. Fortunately, the NIRF identifies an institution’s inclusivity at the levels of region, class, gender and physical disability as a parameter in quality assessment. But there are, as yet, no points for diversity in faculty. (MR, Inputs: Agencies).