Judging institutions on the basis of inputs alone does not reflect their contribution to society. Social mission should also form part of the ranking.
The college admission season in the country, in addition to making students anxious, increases the stress on educational institutions. The annual ritual of ranking by different media groups is eagerly awaited by students, their families, and the public, and with trepidation by the institutional alumni, faculty and administration. Those organising the seasonal ritual go to great lengths to highlight the elaborate process of assessment. Diverse aspects are measured — infrastructure, facilities, faculty, staff-student ratios, job placements, research output, budgets, etc. Most indices examine detailed inputs (quality of faculty, infrastructure) but employ crude indicators for the quality of the output (like proportion of graduates placed). Perceptions are given more credence than facts; perceptual ranks and factual data are combined using complex statistical jugglery to produce the final league tables. Year on year, these tables are dominated by the usual suspects, albeit with minor shifts in position, so necessary to maintain credibility and interest in the process. Those at the top of the tables provide a glowing account of the reasons for their success, while the views of the also-rans rarely receive any attention. A few headlines later, the media have moved on to more interesting news with a promise to return in judgment the following season.
While attempts at ranking are common across the globe, the criteria remain superficial and divorced from national perspectives. The Annals of Internal Medicine published a study by Mullen and colleagues in 2010, which examined the social mission of medical schools in the United States and ranked them according to their social commitment. They developed a metric, which included the contribution of the institutions to primary care (with disciplines of general internal medicine, paediatrics, and family medicine), the geographical distribution of where their graduates work, and the number of doctors from disadvantaged backgrounds. Their finding confirmed that private medical schools, those located in urban areas and those which received substantial research funding had low scores on social mission. The ranking based on social mission differed substantially from the rankings that focussed on subjective perceptions of reputation and those that concentrated on the research funding received. They argued that medical schools, in keeping with their social mission, should initiate programmes which encourage their graduates to work in underserved regions and with disadvantaged populations.
Ranking systems encourage lazy and simplistic forms of thought: good school, good graduate; bad school, bad graduate. Most Indian ranking systems prefer non-systematic sampling of professional opinion and hearsay. They then add a dose of concrete facts such as infrastructural details, faculty-student ratios and research grants to fashion these elite status lists. These are then projected as definitive conclusions that a college's quality can be graded and passed on directly to their graduates. However, the fact that these ranks may not reflect the quality of graduates or the priorities for India is hardly a concern.
National priorities or international concerns: Measures, which reflect research funding and output and cutting-edge technology, while significant, tend to focus on the social needs of the rich and urban classes and on western priorities. They do not take into consideration the urgent priorities of India's majority; nor do these seem to influence the health, social, economic and quality-of-life outcomes of the majority of the Indian population. Training graduates for western and Indian corporate markets cannot surely be the only national priority when a significant proportion of India's population lives in poverty, suffers from preventable diseases and does not have access to clean water, sanitation, nutrition, basic education, affordable health care and sustainable employment. The dominance of scientific theory and international markets, considered universal and authentic, over local practice, deemed trivial and less valid, makes for the dismissal of regional concerns and context. This is true for much of Indian higher education, which is rarely rooted in the local culture and its concerns.
Excellence and relevance: Indian higher education, at least a significant proportion of it, exposes students to isolated bits of content-specific knowledge. They are rarely taught to relate such learning to other disciplines or to apply it in the world around them. A boxed approach to excellence, through books and in classrooms, prevents the integration of new learning with life outside our universities. The acceptance of received wisdom and the lack of critical thought to apply and test it in the local context makes the quest for such excellence less relevant to India. The brightest minds, after graduation, find themselves uncomfortable in the alien environment in the country, with its strange logic and different practices, and prefer leaving for greener and more comfortable pastures.
Contradictory facets: The diverse aims of education pose contradictory challenges for universities. Course requirements to achieve the social mission of education are very different from training programmes for research. Colleges, which focus on narrow objectives, would fail miserably on others. Those which emphasise local relevance would necessarily have to tailor their programmes to achieve any degree of success. However, their lack of emphasis on an internationally prioritised education would handicap their graduates in the capitalistic marketplace. Skewed ranking and assessments highlight achievements, which are biased and partial.
Comprehensive assessments: All institutions benefit from a re-examination of their vision, mission and performance. An analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats needs to be regular and routine. However, these assessments have to be detailed and comprehensive, educational and instructive, and should be able to hold a mirror for institutional and individual reflection. The exercise should provide a roadmap and direction for growth and development. Such appraisals are rare in Indian academia.
Simple measures: Education has many dimensions: acquisition of knowledge and expertise, training of mental abilities and development of character. The training of mental faculties and character and the assimilation of knowledge for practice, teaching, research and management are dissimilar and add complexity to the educational process. The use of single measures to capture achievements in these disparate dimensions is to underestimate the complexity of the task. The use of a single number to rank diverse facets — although it provides an illusion of certainty — is to belittle the issues. It attempts to measure the immeasurable.
Education is based on the premise that knowledge does not give rise to the character of a culture. Rather, culture determines knowledge. Education, through the process of transmitting societal values, prepares the young for their social inheritance. The divide between the cultures of Indian higher education, which seem to cater to the elite, to the exclusion of the needs of the majority, mandates review. Esoteric research, albeit replicating western notions in Indian contexts, is often out of touch with local needs and reality. Cutting-edge technology, while important, can also overwhelm institutions and take away the focus from education.
Despite different urgent national priorities, India continues to fall back on old rankings that highlight the needs and aspirations of a minority. The systems of funding have also encouraged such a movement towards “international” education at the expense of urgent local but less lucrative and glamorous endeavours. What good are educational systems to the country if they do not supply people and professionals to meet its requirements? While not all educational institutions need to be the same, they need to focus on the distinct needs of the nation.
Assessments of institutions should examine the quality of their graduates, the location of their practice, and their contribution to social capital. Judging institutions by emphasising inputs does not reflect their contribution to society. The addition of ‘social mission' to assessments will make them more comprehensive and relevant to India's needs. Institutional assessments should be in the context of stated objectives and past performance, with a view to bringing course correction. Periodic internal assessment and external reviews are mandatory.
There is a need for educational institutions to seek new visions, embrace social missions that address regional needs, and educate students from rural and disadvantaged backgrounds. It is widely acknowledged that traditional selection criteria based on examinations, which focus on theory and cognitive assessments, do not necessarily translate into professional ability or social change. Academic success reflects only one of many intelligences; a willingness to learn, positive attitude, sense of responsibility and zest for life need to be nurtured. Assessments of educational institutions should be comprehensive and should examine their impact on society. While many will acknowledge the superficial nature of the current ranking systems, most will agree that that their focus remains on magazine sales and profits.
(Professor K.S. Jacob is on the faculty of the Christian Medical College, Vellore.)