Any ranking of global educational institutions will be problematic if it does not take into account disparities in resources between rich and poor countries

Indian academe is anguished that not a single Indian university has made it to the top 200 universities of the world in the recent Times Higher Education rankings. However, the debate so far has missed many points.

First, any discussion of evaluation of global educational standards and rankings cannot ignore the vast disparities in resources between the rich and poor parts of the world. An overwhelmingly large part of global knowledge production is concentrated in the developed world.

In 2009, Drexel University president Constantine Papadakis was the highest paid university president in America with an annual compensation of $49,12,127. That is around Rs.27 crore for running a university! Even the highest-paid public university president earned nearly $2 million as salary in 2011.

The endowment of Harvard University is around $31 billion — more than 1/4 th of the GDP of Tamil Nadu. Research support in developed countries runs into hundreds of millions. As Times itself recognises, “income is crucial to the development of world-class research.”

Most in the U.S.

Is it then surprising that of the top 200 universities, 76 are in the United States and 196, no less, in the developed countries (two from China, and one each from South Africa and Brazil are the only ones from the developing countries)? [76 from the U.S. and 196 in all from the developed countries. This includes the 76 from the U.S.] The crisis afflicting universities is thus, not an Indian phenomenon alone, but generalised across the “Third World.”

Second, while resources are crucial, they should not become an excuse for the abysmal standards of Indian universities. Instead the debate has to be extended, from merely technical solutions like establishing comprehensive universities or addressing student-teacher ratio, to the kind of academic culture that we have nurtured.

On merit and representation

Universities, on the one hand, have to reflect social reality by representing caste, class and gender criteria in order to overcome these hierarchies in academia. Academic freedom and egalitarian relations in the departments are expected not only to foster academic brilliance but also a socially progressive culture.

On the other, given the excessively communitarian nature of society, universities have, only in name, provided representation to disadvantaged sections. They have not actually overcome predisposed social hierarchies. Our academic culture is marked by patronage and networks or by bureaucratic hierarchies of seniority and administrative positions.

Even new political mobilisations around caste and reservations have focused only on the issues of representation without raising those of pedagogy and curriculum. There is a stalemate between merit and adequate representation.

In fact, those demanding reservations should have argued that reservation brings diversity, which develops new knowledge systems and new modes of understanding. This would, eventually, also contribute to a new institutional culture. Instead, inclusion of newer marginalised groups has only created parallel networks and patronage in defence against the existing ones of the dominant groups.

This kind of social breakdown has rarely contributed to new ideas and energies. Experimental culture has for long been supplanted by a culture of fear and insecurity, not merely among the new entrants, but also among “meritorious” social groups.

Top-down syndrome

In fact, anything new is looked at sceptically, and often succumbs to the tyranny of age. Age-related hierarchy is perhaps the worst in the Indian university system and the least-debated sacred cow. The top-down syndrome has resulted in universities’ resistance to introducing student evaluation of faculty, continued cases of victimisation of students — including sexual harassment and arbitrary evaluation, and consequently, lack of motivation among the students, translating into ills like rampant plagiarism.

Third, while Indian universities seek excellence, treating exercises such as the Times’ ranking as sacrosanct is also problematic. Can we compare universities from America to Somalia? How do we arrive at an average from the vastly different material realities and the different starting points (which are historically and, often, violently determined) of these locations?

Faults

The Times’ claims that it accounts for these disparities by providing a “comprehensive and balanced” comparison. But what does “international outlook” (one of the categories in Times worth 7.5 per cent) mean for a poor university in the global South which struggles to attract students even from the hinterlands of its own country? Or how does it go about achieving excellence in research, worth 30 per cent, and measured in terms of volume, income and reputation when the public spending on education is abysmally low?

The Times’ rankings of 13 performance indicators also have no place for intangible features. In a university such as Jawaharlal Nehru University, students from some of the most backward regions study, thanks to its system of deprivation points. Students with very poor primary education, linguistic and writing skills, in very little time, gather confidence and become highly motivated, and look for an institutional culture that can translate this into a rigorous academic exercise. This is because of the vibrant student politics and a dominant discourse of social justice. Under what ranking can this amazing social feat of providing wide opportunity and social skills be judged?

While the poor quality of Indian universities is lamentable, does the solution lie in emulating the developed countries where high academic standards are now negated by the degenerating commercialisation of education? Thus students pay an annual fee of $40,000 for a bachelor’s degree in an American Ivy League institution, and the average student-loan debt of 2011 in the U.S. was $26,500, rendering them perpetual bonded labourers of the market.

Students are not trained to become critical thinkers, but foot soldiers of the establishment. Therefore, they graduate without pondering over what it means when the university gives its presidents multimillion dollar salaries and its janitors $7 per hour. It is in this culture that people like Papadakis are able to double student enrolments and generate revenue surpluses rivalling multinational corporations.

Ultimately, the ranking debate is not just about Indian universities entering “the top 200,” but also the need for a radically new academic culture, reducing inequalities of global academia, the ends of education, and the limitations of the ranking exercise itself.

(Ajay Gudavarthy and Nissim Mannathukkaren are with Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Dalhousie University, Canada, respectively.)

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