Rural is off the rankings radar

League tables should recognise the work of community-focused institutions in the developing world, argues Mukti Mishra

August 29, 2013

Amid all the attention that university rankings attract, their shortcomings are often overlooked. Not only are league tables of institutions based on indicators that take no account of the social and public-good aspects of education, they also perpetuate a global bias. Consider the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Its key assessments look at an institution’s teaching, international outlook, industry income, research output and volume of citations. Such parameters skew the rankings towards universities in the most developed countries.

The fundamental job of a university is teaching and learning. But must every institution focus on research to enhance its teaching and learning experience? Would it not be useful and important for at least some universities to produce “job-ready individuals” rather than “think-ready individuals”, or to produce some combination of “action leaders” and “thought leaders”?

India is a country of countries: each state is linguistically and culturally distinct. National institutions such as the University of Delhi and the Indian Institutes of Technology have students from almost all states, which means that their multiculturalism is on a par with that of leading global universities. Nevertheless, Indian institutions score negligible points on the international outlook parameter.

Rankings also fail to capture the high-impact and socially relevant work that is being done in India’s regional and community-oriented institutions to offer inclusive education and bridge tremendous social gaps by bringing together students from vastly different communities who otherwise could not afford higher education. At top-ranked universities, the cohort is much more homogeneous: students are typically all from the global upper strata.

Centurion University of Technology and Management, in the eastern state of Odisha (formerly Orissa), is an example of this wider university project. Here, school dropouts, vocational trainees, graduate engineers and PhD students all live and dine together; they use the same labs and play on the same sports teams. By fostering a truly inclusive experience, Centurion allows education to be the public good it should be.

Rankings distort public perceptions of the services delivered by a university. Thus many big companies donate to top-ranked universities to signal their own elite nature instead of helping institutions that serve a local community or region.

Despite its lack of financial support or rankings success, Centurion is determined to generate economic value for its region. Through relevant, appropriate education, employability training and industry ties, it strives each year to help 15,000 young people from marginalised communities into work, with a goal of 100,000 by 2022. Centurion has also created many social entrepreneurship initiatives. One, Gram Tarang Inclusive Development Services, has brought banking and financial services to 4 million of some of the most remote households in rural India.

In reflecting on one component of rankings success – citations – it strikes me that researchers worldwide should be citing Centurion’s work, rather than Centurion’s scholars citing other researchers. Alas, this does not happen; rankings continue to neglect real-world impact.

As a young institution, we are still redefining our community impact through education and refining how to maximise it. All we can hope is that the model for ranking higher education institutions continues to evolve with a similar sense of integrity. Institutions making a real difference to the problems of remote and rural regions must be acknowledged, even if they are not ranked. The parties involved in university rankings have organisational, social and individual responsibility for showcasing such invisible, unsung and voiceless institutes.

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Reader's comments (3)

University Ranking needs to have a strong component related to the institution's contribution to local community in the form of job creation, knowledge creation, innovation and empowerment.
I totally agree with Dr.Mukti Mishra on one aspect that the ranking misleads public and I like the idea of job-ready indidivudals/students(ref:extract)!! The research in many Institutes or not relevant today (may they are not expected to be). I have experienced this frustration as a scientist and researcher. As scientists we were trained to look at future and build vision (hallucinate?)! - One of the frustrations I went through was working on Tele-medicine (while in DRDO) - after development, we came to know that the people (in India) would not accept it - the touch and feel of doctor is important for the patient's confidence which in turn is very important for the patient's cure!!! Then I worked on e-learning. after 4 years of reserch we concluded (in IL&FS) that India was not yet ready (as on 2004) for e-learning and in India brick and mortar will be needed for a couple of decades more! - the company has closed its e-learning operations! We need to ask the question: Are we relevant today? Is this required today?? It is akin to our slogan:the rich get richer and poor get poorer - the scienstists/researchers get more and more advanced and futuristic while the illiterate are getting more and more ignorant and deprived - - the elite have never bothered about them...I think Centurion is one of the exceptions. Other related thoughts: I have also often wondered why we spend more on people who work on (an assumed) FUTURE !! The future that may not BE! Scientific (engineering) advancements were at one point of time very relevant to manage time, space, population increase, etc.. Today I believe social science is more relevant and needed; we need to learn to BE and to live in peace and harmony.
“If a university is a repository for knowledge, then some of this knowledge should spill over to the neighboring community”, said Mohd Yunus. If this is desirable, should we try to measure the spill? Universities have the responsibility to serve society, and the specific nature of this service is defined by the context of the community it serves, and the challenges at that point in time. The goals of a university cannot remain static, else how can it create agile citizens for a dynamic environment? There is much agonizing in India on why IITs don’t feature anywhere in the global rankings. Yet they have served society more than most national institutions. Their mandate was to create outstanding engineers and they have famously succeeded in this objective. I have been taught by some very inspiring professors who could have devoted their lifetime to cutting edge research, instead they chose to inspire two generations of Indians to be nation builders – that’s why India has earned its place in the world map. Should this count when we rank? Just as we understand academic excellence is only one aspect of ranking individuals, we need to take a step further and recognize a university has multiple responsibilities, and rankings must reflect diverse parameters. So what should we expect of rankings of the future? Can we say universities must make a difference to the environment around it? How can we change our evaluation of universities to include the number of ethical, responsible, and inspired citizens it produces? Should the universities of the future include practitioners? With the influx of technology, and easy access to knowledge and e-education, should the traditional university structure be radically re-defined? Is the modern university prepared to serve the lifelong learning needs of the dynamic knowledge professional? Why should a university’s agenda be limited to under-grad, masters and doctoral students, and not impact growth and inspiration of citizens and society in an uncertain world? In a dynamically changing environment, how relevant is research, as the context may have changed by the time the research is completed? Shouldn’t agility, synthesis, ability to get insights, learnability, be as important as formal research; if yes, should these not be formally taught? Is it time to relook at the old world disciplines, and focus on the inter-disciplinary nature of modern problems? Should the education system align itself to address the needs and attributes of today’s teenager (high curiosity, fleeting attention, eagerness to be a CEO by 30)? What are the attributes of the future teacher? Are we preparing them for that future? What new social problems do we anticipate, and why shouldn’t the future University focus on that? If some of these are relevant questions, should these reflect in rankings? Many of my friends tell me, why should rankings matter? I agree educators must not chase rankings, and just focus on their purpose. Still, rankings do matter as they provide some common goals, common benchmarks, and milestones to see where we are in the journey. They also drive agenda. If more universities focus on social impact, on environmental responsibility, on respect for other cultures, on building peace and harmony, the world will surely be a better place – irrespective of who is on top of the rankings. Can Times take on this lofty objective?

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