The latest eminent person to castigate Indian higher education for its low quality is President Pranab Mukherjee, who cited the lack of any Indian university in the top 200 of the global rankings at the 10th convocation of the National Institute of Technology, Kurukshetra. As Phil Baty, in his article (Op-Ed, The Hindu, April 11, 2013) points out, much can be learned from the more serious of the global rankings.

The Times Higher Education rankings, he notes, assess 13 performance indicators. The Academic Ranking of World Universities, commonly known as the “Shanghai Rankings” objectively measures research performance. Both provide useful criteria for the benchmarking of research universities — they are, however, not relevant for most of India’s higher education institutions, including its 34,000 colleges and many of its lower echelon universities which mainly provide supervision of colleges and teaching in selected postgraduate fields, but perform little if any research. The third global ranking, sponsored by the for-profit QS education company, relies most heavily on reputational measures and is, in my view, of little relevance.

Indian higher education needs many improvements, but two are relevant here. It needs a small number of top-quality, internationally competitive research universities. And it needs significant improvement in the overall quality of the system, and especially of the colleges. I’ve written earlier in The Hindu that the rankings are overused. But they provide useful guidelines to what is internationally recognised as the key criteria for universities — the definition of “world-classness.”

In general, the small number of universities that have the potential to “play in the international big leagues” can take useful lessons from these criteria. But just as important is to assess what is important for India’s development and what is possible in India when planning to create research universities.

Building successful world-class research universities is not an easy task. India would do well to think about such key elements as effective governance, patterns of funding, the role of the private sector, the creation of a competitive academic culture, and other factors. The rankings will provide little guidance for these central decisions.

(Philip G. Altbach is Monan University Professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, U.S.)

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