India’s quest for global rankings

| | in Oped

Research credibility of Indian institutions is at its lowest ebb. This is one of the reasons for the poor performance of Indian universities globally. Overall, an attempt must be made to improve the admission process and evaluate doctoral degrees

Every year when the Times Higher Education World University Rankings list is released, people start cursing the Indian university set-up for their failure to get into the global ranking list. But no one ever tries to understand the reason behind the poor performance of our universities.

Amongst the 13 performance indicators, research accounts for 30 per cent of the total assessment criteria. There are three major heads under which research is assessed — reputation survey; research income and research productivity. The major reason for poor performance of our higher education institutions is the assessment of research in our universities. Ranking is done on data collected for the last five years of the performance of universities. Every Government makes changes and wants the ranking to be influenced immediately, which is not possible.

Do we trust our university research system, admission and awards? Ask anyone in any of the academic institution or even the public and you will get an answer for the poor performance of Indian institutions. In most merit lists and awards, are made on the basis of region, caste, religion and gender. This writer has himself been a part of various committees to recommend the best reports or innovative experiments. The committee invariably included names of people from the North-East, members of the SC/ST community and also women so that the recommendations look unbiased and inclusive. But the recommendations itself do not remain a list of the best. It becomes a politically correct list.

The nation and institutions have not done enough for the less-privileged communities. Members of the less-privileged communities should have been given extra academic support by organising classes and  campuses so that they come up to the mark and are just not included into the list because we must have a member from the reserved community.

If admission to the doctoral degree programme is made on the basis of considerations other than academic, how can universities ensure quality output? Governments have interfered so much with the so-called autonomous Indian institutions that they no more remain academic but have become political battle-fields for different parties.

There are schemes to coach the less-privileged groups but not much has changed. The schemes have become one more method to siphon public money. Rigorous review of such schemes should be taken up and selected meritorious students from the less-privileged groups should be given best support to compete on an equal basis.

Any survey will reveal that we don’t trust our doctoral thesis and awards because we all now know the degrees are awarded on considerations than merit. So, on the 18 per cent marks on Reputation Survey, our universities would perform poorly, for sure. Not only foreign surveyors but any survey within the country will reveal that we hold very poor impression of our doctoral degrees.

University research, both science and social sciences, should contribute to the existing corpus of human knowledge which is also one of the criterion for ranking of universities. Our research output is not used by the industry; and in most cases, the industry too does not pay for conducting research to refine their processes. They hire agencies outside the academia to give them suggestions.

Our universities cannot earn good marks on the scale of research earning, an important criterion to assess research performance by scholars who manage to get research funding are looked upon with suspicion of squandering money so the administrative departments often put roadblocks and it is also reported that researchers have to pay bribe to get bills passed. We cannot brush aside these impressions and expect research performance to improve. However, it must also be mentioned that teachers of well supplied universities have misused the provisions and used funding injudiciously.

Peer-review has been and is the pillar of academic excellence and cornerstone of quality improvement in the best of institutions. However, peer-review has lost credibility in our institutions. Academics of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) are fighting to deprive the Vice Chancellor of his right to nominate members to the selection committees. It is apparent that departments have formed a national coterie and wish to have only their friends as selection committee members — reasons all know. Similar is the case with PhD thesis examiners. The panel  of examiners is often submitted by the supervisor and the list often consists of the same names. A quick survey can be done by the University Grants Commission (UGC).

Our social scientists are known to be ideologues of political outfits. They will invariably take a stand and express views which will be aligned to a political ideology. Scholars are known more as political activists than as scholars and academics. The global academic community, by and large, does not trust our academic contribution. That is the reason why we are not quoted by other scholars (except our research students and friends) either within the country or abroad. This is an important pillar of academic research, and also of the the ranking.

We have decided on our own on a list of academic journals as Academic Performance Indicators (API), which is not accepted by the world ranking. Very few journals from India appear in the list of Elsevier’s Scopus list which is considered for rating research publication and ranking. The introduction of API by the UGC did more damage to the research and publication than good.

It is now common knowledge that journals hire writers to write for academics on a payment so that teachers can accumulate API and compete for teaching positions and also promotions. There have been scores of complaints by educators against teachers at the JNU of plagiarising their doctoral thesis and also publications. Action is delayed and often no action is taken. Plagiarism is the highest form of crime in academia and there should neither be leniency nor any delay in action. This sends a wrong message and breaks the morale of true researchers.

As an immediate measure, the UGC should constitute a committee of scholars who have worked in this area and ask for recommendations to subvert the existing practice. Research funding to universities should be linked to research performance. Admission process and evaluation of doctoral degrees should be made more rigorous so that quality improves and scholars and stakeholders trust the degrees awarded by universities. Research credibility of our institutions is at its lowest ebb. We must rescue or be ready to perish.

(The writer is Professor of Education at the Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal)

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