Global rankings of universities/academic institutes are a relatively new phenomenon. Government authorities and academia have been concerned regarding the fact that no academic institute in India is ranked high. Accordingly, the Government of India in general and the HRD Ministry in particular are making efforts to provide additional funds and autonomy to select Indian academic institutes in the hope that these will enable them to rise in the global rankings. While this is not an undesirable goal, there is need for caution. Chasing global rankings can do more harm than good as the parameters used to determine the position of academic institutes in the global rankings can induce perverse incentives.
For instance, an important parameter used by the global rankings is the number of foreign faculty an academic institute has on its rolls. This criterion makes several assumptions which may be false. It assumes that if an academic institute is able to attract faculty from abroad then the academic institute must be good and must be making academic appointments on merit. It also errs in assuming that all foreign faculty members are at least of a certain minimum calibre. In fact, the parameter used for the global rankings takes into account only the number of foreign faculty with complete disregard for their caliber. So a university can score well on this parameter by simply hiring a large number of foreign faculty members of low caliber. In fact, a university may be academically so weak that it cannot attract any foreign faculty of high caliber. But to score well on this parameter, the university may hire whatever foreign faculty is available and ignore better faculty available nationally. This is not merely a theoretical possibility, it is actually happening at some Indian universities that are aiming for a high global rank.
Another important parameter is research publications. A high global ranking requires faculty members of an academic institute to publish at least 150 papers a year in Scopus journals. However, the Scopus journals include a wide variety of journals, ranging from very low to very high quality. To meet this criterion, the vice-chancellor of a university is alleged to have advised his faculty members to aim at publishing in the low-quality Scopus journals as it is easy to publish in them whereas publishing in the high-quality Scopus journals is difficult and may take longer. Thus, the criterion, however well intended, may actually induce incentives to produce low-quality research papers in large numbers which do not really raise the academic stature of a university.
A simple example, that is not concerning academic institutes however, may help understand the issue better. It is said that there was a Government-owned glass factory near Moscow that had the capacity to produce 80 per cent of the glass sheets needed in the economy. In the heydays of central planning, performance of this factory was measured in terms of tons of glass sheets produced by the factory. To score well on this parameter, the factory produced only thick glass sheets and no thin glass sheets as the latter took longer to produce and contributed less to the tonnage. This led to shortages of thin glass sheets in the economy. To address the problem the central planner changed the criterion. The performance of the factory, from then on, was to be measured by the square feet of glass sheets produced. But the factory then stopped producing thick glass sheets and instead started to produce only thin glass sheets as they contributed more to the square feet and used less molten glass. Soon there were shortages of thick glass sheets; more square feet but fewer tonnes of glass sheets were produced. Thus, instead of making efforts to meet needs of the economy for various types of glass sheets, gaming the parameters became the main goal of the factory.
Besides, some parameters used for global rankings even if not gamed could be simply misleading. One such parameter is the student-faculty ratio. A low student-faculty ratio is assumed to indicate a healthy teaching environment. This assumption too can be false as the ratio is determined simply by the total number of students divided by the total number of faculty members with complete disregard for the quality of either the students or the faculty. Thus, a university may score well on this criterion even if most of its faculty has little or no teaching experience but is large in numbers. Moreover, the student-faculty ratio in a university can be low even if it is very high for its undergraduate programmes and, by default, very low for its graduate programmes, because the university is unable to attract many students for its graduate programmes. As we know, averages can hide extremes.
In sum, asking academic institutes to chase global rankings is not very different from central planning: A model that has repeatedly failed worldwide. In fact, it is worse than central planning because the ranking parameters and their values are not determined by the national planner but are outsourced to an international agency that is seeking profits. In any case, all but a couple of parameters used for global rankings can be gamed and have similar flaws as those discussed above. Seven leading IITs have rightly questioned the parameters used for the global rankings.
The global rankings also do not take into account the quality of governance in academic institutes and thereby miss the wood for trees. Most reputed academic institutes are least hierarchical and believe in transparent and participatory decision-making processes. In contrast, the vice-chancellor of a university may concentrate all decision-making powers in his/her hands such that no faculty member would dare to question decisions taken by him unilaterally. Such universities may encourage blatant cronyism. This is especially true in the case of some private universities in India which practise easy hiring and firing policies. Yet, both because the quality of governance is not taken into account and flawed parameters are used for the global rankings, such badly governed universities can also aspire for a high global rank.
In sum, asking Indian academic institutes generally to chase global rankings as a primary target is not the right way to incentivise them to raise their global profile, because that, as noted above, may lead to perverse incentives. Due to lack of appropriate incentives and good governance, the role of many Indian universities has diminished to conducting examinations and awarding degrees. This certainly needs to change. But in order to bring meaningful change, instead of chasing global rankings, the emphasis should be on cultivating a culture and tradition of innovation and high-quality research and teaching, as some internationally reputed Indian and foreign academic institutes actually do without bothering about their global rankings. Indeed, many academic institutes became internationally reputed much before global rankings of universities were invented and practised. Even now most of the top-ranking universities actually do not participate in the process of global rankings, but they are still assigned ranks to give credibility to the global rankings and make them appear universal. It is only the less reputed universities that are willing to pay heavy fees for participating in the process of global rankings, as they see it as an easy and quick path to fame that can be monetised.
(The writer is an Adjunct Professor of Economics at the University of Pittsburgh, the US)