China rising, India falling: IITs are an illustrative example of the dumbing down of Indian universities

Asit K. Biswas

THE TIMES OF INDIA | January 6, 2015 

Last September, Indian Institute of Technology, Bhubaneswar, gave me an honorary Doctor of Science degree. When the honour was conferred President Pranab Mukherjee, in his capacity as visitor to the institute, lamented that no Indian university is now ranked among the top 200 in the world even though historically the country had excellent educational universities like Takshashila and Nalanda.

President Mukherjee’s contention raises two serious issues. First, how relevant are university ranking processes and do these give a fair indication of the quality and appropriateness of education in a rapidly changing world? Second, should Indian universities be concerned that not even one is in the top 200?

There are now three ranking systems. The oldest one is Academic Ranking of World Universities, popularly known as Shanghai rankings because it was started by Shanghai Jiao Tong University in 2003. It is updated biannually.

The Times Higher Education (THE) World Education Ranking started in 2004 in collaboration with Quacquarelli Symonds (QS). In 2010 QS went its own way with its own ranking methodology whose citation data base is provided by Thomson Reuters. The three ranking systems provide different results because criteria used as well as their relative weights differ. Many of the criteria are subjective and dependent on views of stakeholders sampled. With different stakeholders, the results could be very different.

To be ranked, universities have to continually fill up numerous surveys from the three ranking organisations. How reliable is self-reporting when results have high stakes as there are considerable economic and reputational consequences?

University rankings have become an important tool to attract high-quality staff, good students and serious funding. For administrators, politicians, government officials, funding agencies and media, rankings are important. Thus, temptation to manipulate data is quite significant. Providing regular global rankings data have become a fiercely competitive, lucrative and booming market. The way rankings are done at present, the roles of poachers and gamekeepers have become blurred.

No matter how the three ranking systems are assessed, they do not consider how good or relevant teaching quality is. Sadly, there is no indication that the system is likely to change in the near future because universities that rank within the first 200 simply refuse to provide such information. Not surprisingly, they would like to maintain the status quo since it serves their agenda well.

From my perspective, even though not a single Indian university is within the Global 200, i am not overtly worried about this fact so long as they can provide quality education to prepare the students for a rapidly changing world. Sadly, this is not happening.

The country made a good beginning as early as September 1944 when it was announced that an ‘Indian MIT’ would be set up. Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, was conceived in the image of MIT and started functioning in 1951. When i joined this institution as a student, in 1954, it truly had an all-India character, with the best faculty and students available. When the second IIT was established in Kanpur a large number of faculty left Kharagpur, including M S Muthana who became director of IIT Kanpur. Over the years, as the number of IITs proliferated, these have become provincial institutions.

Until recently, admissions to IITs were strictly on the basis of quality. IITs became a respected global brand because they selected students who were the best in India. With the proliferation of IITs and quota system for admission, the overall quality of future IIT graduates is bound to decline.

Sadly, for political expediency, India does not have a single MIT as in the United States, but at least 21 IITs in the foreseeable future. Not surprisingly, in 2014, early results showed that during the first phase only 9,061 of 9,711 seats were filled. There is still high demand for the first five IITs (Kharagpur, Kanpur, Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai) but not for the newer ones.

This is also reflected in quality and retention of staff. Overall, in IITs nearly 30% of faculty positions cannot be filled because of lack of quality staff. Indian politicians, for the sake of short-term gains, have killed the goose that laid golden eggs!

Compare this with Chinese policy. In 1998, the Chinese government decided to support only nine of their 2,000 universities to become world class. The results have been truly spectacular. China is now supporting a few universities at a much higher level so that these become globally some of the best. This does not mean research and teaching facilities are not supported at other universities but only that the elite universities are supported at a much higher level. Other countries like Germany have followed similarly successful policies. Current Indian policies are unlikely to produce world-class universities.

Irrespective of whether any Indian university is ranked within the first 200 of the world, the quality of education has to be improved significantly so that graduates receive the skills they need for employment. If India wants to have elite global universities it has to select a few that have the necessary potential and comparative advantage, then support them consistently over the long term with higher funding and less bureaucratic intervention.

The writer is distinguished visiting professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.