5 June 2013
India must stop being so defensive. The time for excuses is over. It must embrace the internationalisation of higher education, and judge its universities against established global performance indicators
This was the resounding message that emerged from India's Ministry for Human Resources Development and Planning Commission, at a "National Policy Dialogue" on university rankings and research evaluation on 23 May, co-organised by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, Thomson Reuters and the British Council.
Speaking at the meeting, Ashok Thakur, Secretary, Department of Higher Education at the MHRD, did not pull his punches. He said that in the past, when faced with the stinging criticism that none of India's universities make the top 200 of the world rankings, the response had been too defensive: suggesting the criteria employed by the rankings were not relevant to India.
"We can not hide behind that excuse," he said. "We must play the same game the rest of the world is playing. We need not be shy about it."
Of course, there has until now been a legitimate inward focus - India has expanded its higher education system to an extent that is barely comprehensible from a Western perspective. Planning Commission higher education advisor Pawan Agawal has said that on average, around 5,000 new students were enrolled every single day over the past five years. That is an incredible feat - an immense achievement.
For the majority of institutions, this focus on local priorities must continue: expanding learning opportunities to under-represented groups, working with the local community and providing higher level vocational skills to ensure that India's "demographic dividend" - the almost unimaginable potential latent in its huge population of young people - does not turn into a demographic disaster.
But for other institutions, internationalization must be embraced wholeheartedly. A country of India's rich intellectual history, vast size and growing economic power deserves - and needs - at least some world-class universities that can compete with the very best universities anywhere in the world.
India needs institutions producing research with a global impact that pushes forward the boundaries of understanding. They need to be at the forefront of global knowledge creation and innovation. This is essential for the continued success of India's economy.
This means publishing research in the most widely recognized and widely-read global research journals. It means India's best collaborating with the very best academics from wherever in the world they may be based, to share brainpower on shared challenges. It means working harder to create the right environment to retain India's best brains, too often lured away to careers in the west. It means opening up borders, and offering top salaries, to attract the top academic talent from abroad.
In terms of teaching, as well as producing job-ready skilled graduates by the millions, India's universities must also ensure that they are nurturing the next generation of free-thinking, global leaders prepared for an uncertain future in a world-class teaching and learning environment.
This means developing global citizens. It means attracting more international students into India to create a rich, multi-cultural study environment. It means embracing new global partnerships, and harnessing technology, to offer Indian students access the best teaching from all over the world.
Philip Altbach, director of the Centre for International Higher Education at America's Boston College, has said that India "is a world class country without world class universities". This is something that the Twelth Plan is committed to address.
But progress towards this essential goal must be benchmarked against established, trusted and tough global standards. As Shashi Tharoor, Minister of State for Human Resource Development said at the National Policy Dialogue: "Times Higher Education is widely seen as the principal yardstick we should look to".
The Times Higher Education World University Rankings judge world-class research institutions against 13 separate performance indicators, carefully balanced to reflect the full range of a top research university's mission: teaching, research, knowledge transfer and internationalisation.
The system was developed after 10 months of open consultation with the global academic and student community, and was refined with the help of an expert advisory group of more than 50 leading university figures from 15 countries. It is this user-driven focus which has prompted UK universities and science minister David Willets to state: "We broadly accept the criteria used by THE, which is why our policies are focused on the same areas."
So this is why THE is delighted to be working with the Indian government to share data and insights over time to ensure that India's top universities can track progress towards their goals.
Shashi Tharoor said at the National Policy Dialogue that the question India too often asks about global rankings - "does it matter?" - is no longer a relevant question. "Yes it matters," he said.
Phil Baty is editor, Times Higher Education World University Rankings
An edited version of this article first appeared in the Times of India