When, back in June 2013, I spoke at a policy dialogue in New Delhi hosted by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the key question was whether India should even bother to engage with the World University Rankings: India had too many pressing national concerns to worry about, it was argued, and the pursuit of success in global rankings could be a distraction.
I argued passionately, of course, that a country with such a rich intellectual history and with such huge economic potential not only deserved but desperately needed universities that could compete at the highest level on the world stage. The rapid and vast expansion of India’s higher education sector need not preclude the cultivation of world-class teaching and learning in a mixed economy of higher education providers.
Eighteen months later and the climate has changed dramatically.
Last week, Times Higher Education was invited by India’s president, Pranab Mukherjee, to speak on the power of global rankings at his residence, the Rashtrapati Bhavan, at a conference for the heads of the 114 “central” institutions, including the prestigious IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology), where President Mukherjee acts as “visitor”.
At the opening dinner for the conference, President Mukherjee was very clear: India cannot aspire to be a world power without having a single world-class university, he said. This message, a constant refrain from the president, “has found resonance amongst the institutions, who have now started looking at the international ranking processes in a more proactive and systematic manner”.
Innovation, the president said, “is the currency of the future” – and universities must be at the heart of that. “Innovation converts research into wealth. Unless we recognise this reality and start working in a focused manner on creating a strong innovation culture in our country now, we will be left behind in the march to modernity.”
Indeed, such is the enthusiasm for pursuing a higher standing in the rankings, it seems that India is heading for its own version of the type of excellence initiative that has been so successful in China, and that is being pursued with such vigour in Russia now, too. Such initiatives focus special funding and attention on a hand-picked elite group of institutions to help them compete with the very best in the world.
President Mukherjee said: “If we provide enough funds to the top 10 to 15 institutions for the next four to five years, these institutions will certainly storm into the top 100 of global academic rankings within the next few years.”
The president stressed the importance of two elements that happen to be core to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings – the “symbiotic relationship between teaching and research”, which will be supported by a push to award more PhDs, and the need for “a strong inter-linkage between industry and academia”.
In addition, India has embraced national rankings, with a new rankings framework agreed by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. This will improve the collection and sharing of institutional data and benchmarking, with the aim of driving success globally.
“Apart from giving the nation, the institutions, its students and its alumni a sense of pride, a high rank can help attract quality faculty and meritorious students, open fresh avenues of growth and placement for students, and provide a benchmark for continuous improvement in standards,” the president said.
President Mukherjee concluded by quoting Mahatma Gandhi: “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.”
It seems that we could be entering a new era, with India’s leading universities and institutions playing a much greater role in shaping the future of global higher education.
Phil Baty is editor of the THE World University Rankings.