DEBATE @ THE HINDU By seeing how they compare against the finest across a range of common indicators, even universities that fall short of the world’s best have much to gain
India was given a sound warning against “the overuse of rankings” in The Hindu last month (Op-Ed, March 9, 2013). In a measured and sensible article, Philip Altbach, director of the Centre for International Higher Education at America’s Boston College, outlined some limitations of global university league tables. He said that it would be a “mistake” for India and other developing countries to “obsess about the rankings.”
Of course, obsessions are rarely healthy, but as the editor of the leading global ranking system, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, I would warn that it would be a far greater mistake for Indian institutions and policymakers to under-use the global rankings than to overuse them.
Let us get one thing clear right away: a country of India’s size, rich intellectual history and growing economic strength deserves world-class universities that can compete with the very best universities in the world. Indeed, India needs such institutions for the future success of its economy. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was absolutely right when he warned in February: “Too many of our higher education institutions are simply not up to the mark. Too many of them have simply not kept abreast with changes that have taken place in the world around us.”
Referring to global university rankings, Dr. Singh said: “It is a sobering thought that not one Indian university today figures in the top 200 universities of the world today.”
It is sobering indeed — it was Professor Altbach himself who told The Hindu back in December last year that India “is a world class country without world class universities.” This must change, and it is heartening to see that improving quality in Indian higher education has been identified as a key priority for the Twelfth Plan.
But how can we monitor the progress of this essential goal? How do we know when the politicians and institutional leaders have delivered the quality institutions that can compete at the highest levels on the world stage?
This is where the Times Higher Education World University Rankings are crucial. They judge world-class research institutions against 13 separate performance indicators, carefully balanced to reflect the full range of a top research university’s mission: teaching, research, knowledge transfer and internationalisation.
The system was developed after 10 months of open consultation with the global academic and student community, and was refined with the help of an expert advisory group of more than 50 leading university figures from 15 countries.
The rankings database, developed by our trusted data provider, Thomson Reuters under its Institutional Profiles Project, includes detailed data (many tens of thousands of data points in total) on several hundred of the world’s very best institutions. Most importantly, data is collected under a common set of globally accepted common definitions, providing a unique global resource.
I had the pleasure earlier this year of visiting the Vibrant Gujarat Summit in Gandhinagar, where at the International Conference for Academic Institutions the internationalisation of Indian higher education was a key theme. Vice chancellors lined up to speak of the need for Indian universities to respond to globalisation — to retain top talent too often lost to the West, to attract faculty and students from all over the world and to share best practice and to collaborate in research across national borders to push forward the knowledge economy. This can all be done while preserving India’s national identity and individual priorities.
Some may argue that India should not worry about promoting world-class research universities when it has so much to do to simply cope with the exploding demand for higher education. This would be wrong. Of course not all institutions in India should — or indeed would want to — ape Harvard or Oxford, and the majority should rightly focus on local needs. But India and even lower-income countries need at least some institutions competing at the global level.
Max Price, the Vice Chancellor of South Africa’s University of Cape Town, has argued that in a globalised economy, no country can afford to fall too far behind. “If a country cannot integrate reasonably competitively into global systems of trade, finance, communications and data, production, quality assurance and global markets, it cannot develop,” he told Times Higher Education.
Some may also argue that there is no point in Indian institutions joining the rankings process while they have little chance of making it into the elite top 200 or even 400. But by joining Times Higher Education’s rankings exercise, and submitting data to Thomson Reuters, even institutions that fall short of the world’s elite have much to gain by seeing how they compare against the best across a wide range of common indicators.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) is a perfect example. Its Vice Chancellor, Tan Sri Dr Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hasan Shahabudin, got it absolutely right when she said: “It is not a failure not to be in the top 200 but it is a failure if you choose not to know where you are on the measure.”
(Phil Baty is editor, Times Higher Education rankings. The first ever THE Asia University Rankings will be published on April 11, 2013. See: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/world-university-rankings/)