Focus on local goals and let global rankings follow, India told

Priority should be better teaching for domestic students and improved research performance, THE forum hears

February 11, 2021
Human pyramid under a globe
Source: Getty

Improved performance in global rankings by Indian universities should be a by-product of more effective action to address local priorities, not the goal in itself, a Times Higher Education event heard.

India’s universities have produced the chief executives of leading technology firms such as Google and Microsoft, yet currently none make the top 200 of the THE World University Rankings and some institutions have declined to participate in international league tables.

Sector leaders told the THE India Universities Forum that improving the quality of teaching for Indian students was the priority, not chasing numbers on a chart.

“Should we aspire for higher rankings? Yes. Should we run after rankings? No,” said Pankaj Mittal, secretary general of the Association of Indian Universities, which represents more than 800 institutions. “India should focus on doing a better job – producing better students, better research, aiming for excellence. And rankings should be a by-product of that.”

Focusing on metrics that weigh heavily in rankings – such as mostly English-language research citations, internationalisation and industry income – “may or may not be what’s best for Indian students”, she said.  

Meanwhile, some of the Indian system’s strengths may not be reflected in the charts. “We do a lot of socially impactful research, and in different languages as a multilingual nation,” Dr Mittal said. “We want to produce good citizens for the country, who are curious and involved in community engagement – but those things are not measured in the rankings.”

Ramgopal Rao, director of the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, said that “world rankings are a relatively new phenomenon for us” and that his country’s universities traditionally had different goals.

“We are among the best in the world in training engineers at the undergraduate level – look at where our graduates are,” he said. 

However, IITs only started focusing on high-level research about 20 years ago.

“In rankings that emphasise international students or faculty, we score very poorly. And rightly so – this had not been part of our DNA,” he said.  “For example, until now, we had no motivation to accept large numbers of international students. After all, we were rejecting 499 out of 500 Indians who wanted to study with us.”

Despite its famously tough admissions standards, IIT Delhi draws 70 per cent of its student body from socio-economically disadvantaged families. Professor Rao said that, if Indian universities wanted to make changes to improve in rankings, they had to do so without “diluting what we have”.

That said, he felt that global rankings helped to “put pressure on the government to reform by exposing our problems and weaknesses”.

An aspiration to become “world-class” is one of the driving factors behind the National Education Policy, which aims to reform the higher education system over the next 20 years. 

Raj Kumar, vice-chancellor of O.P. Jindal Global University, said that, until recently, “Indian HEI had not asked the hard questions”.

“It is crucial to benchmark Indian institutions against international ones,” he said. 

The large number of Indian professors at top US and UK universities was a sign of why reform is needed. “We need to build an institutional ecosystem in which the best minds of India are choosing to be in Indian academia,” he said.

He cited India’s infamous bureaucracy and lack of institutional autonomy as two of the many hurdles the country will face in implementing the NEP.

“It’s not going to be easy,” he said. “There will be a lot of pushback internally. But the last thing we want is change in name only.” 

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