India has long been the "sleeping giant" of Asia. Research in the university sector, stagnant for at least two decades, is now accelerating but it will be a long haul to restore the country as an Asian knowledge hub. Research ranking intruded in the foreground of many sessions at India's 2011 Higher Education Summit (organised by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) in New Delhi on 11 and 12 November) and the obsessive draw of "Indian universities in the top league" was universal.
The climate in New Delhi is delightful in November. Perhaps for this reason, more than 650 people, including - among 12 other countries - strong contingents from Scotland and Canada, enjoyed an opening plenary addressed by Michael Russell MSP, Scottish Cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning, who described the particular benefits of internationalisation in the Highlands and Islands.
Indian higher education is faced with powerful dilemmas and difficult choices - public/private, access/equity, uncertain regulation, obscure teaching standards and contested research quality. International links with Inverness and Calgary are, frankly, not top of the agenda. India - with 1.2 billion people, 8-10 per cent annual growth and a barely 10 per cent higher education age participation rate - needs a massive expansion in tertiary education and it needs a sharper, stronger research base. The present economy cannot afford these and the future economy cannot do without either.
What sort of research base does India need? There are fundamental questions about resource distribution, subject balance, institute versus university, research training and the management of excellence. None of these was on the agenda. At FICCI, the debate revolved around the tension between wanting to know who was "in the lead" and the, frankly reluctant, acceptance that a ranked list is of zero-value in working out a management strategy to move up that list. The conclusion was that India needed a well-rounded system that used multiple indicators, balanced across a university's mission and normalised across faculties. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings, and the changes in methodology adopted by Shanghai Jiao Tong University from the WUR, are both seen to respond to that need.
External analysts only skim the Indian surface. In a country with 3,000 business schools there was an acceptance that India has to focus on a modest number of international institutions: perhaps 150 significant research universities; maybe 15 delivering comprehensively at international levels. If there is to be more comprehensive internal assessment to identify excellence and address underlying performance management, then ranking may be an affordable starting point.
The conference indicated that the consensus, the ambition and the leadership to start on research assessment for India are there. But a critical question is: "who is going to do it?". Domestic data systems are thin, compliance is a roadblock and the incentives - for compliance, let alone change - are unclear. What is to be done first? There is a tangible risk of endless debate and planning delays. Delegates agreed that Asia cannot do without the regional balance played by India and by its universities realising their potential. The final word goes to one of the Planning Commission's advisers, exasperated by overlong contributions from the floor: "Enough advice on what should be done; let's have some advice on how it should be done."