The National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF), adopted by the Ministry of Education to rank institutions of higher education in India, shows a noteworthy feature of Tamil Nadu. Specifically, the 2023 NIRF ranking of the top 100 colleges in India reveals the consistent success of Tamil Nadu in providing higher education that is both of good quality and inclusive. The Tamil Nadu experience, in congruence with the State’s motto of development with social justice, offers an important insight for other States.
The NIRF employs a ranking metric comprising five parameters with varying weightage to assess the quality of colleges: Teaching, Learning and Resources (40%), Graduation Outcome (25%), Research and Professional Practices (15%), Outreach and Inclusivity (10%) and Perception (10%). Each of these parameters has several components, which again have varying weightage. Though far from perfect, the metric is reasonably robust as it uses broad-based and curated parameters.
The number of colleges participating in the NIRF ranking has grown from 535 in 2017 to 1,659 in 2020, and 2,746 in 2023. This five-fold increase notwithstanding, the participating colleges constitute only a paltry proportion of the actual number of colleges in India. Since NIRF ranking has already gained wide traction and credibility, it is likely that many good-quality colleges participate in the exercise. A place in the top 100 would bring them repute and increase demand for admission. On the contrary, the non-participating colleges are likely to be poor in quality and seriously lacking in most of the parameters of the ranking metric. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that many good-quality colleges participate in the ranking.
Share of colleges
Of the top 100 NIRF-ranked colleges in 2023, Tamil Nadu has the largest share (35). Delhi (32) comes next, followed by Kerala (14) and West Bengal (8). These four States collectively contribute to 89% of the top colleges, which speaks volumes about other regions. Bigger States such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Odisha do not have a single college in the top 100. Even the share of the other southern States is abysmal: Karnataka has two colleges, Telangana has one, and Andhra Pradesh has none. The share of Tamil Nadu (35%) is more than double the combined share of the other four southern States (17%).
Is the stellar performance of Tamil Nadu consistent or sporadic? The NIRF ranking of colleges since 2017 reveals that Tamil Nadu has been consistent as the lead contributor of top-ranking colleges in India. Even if we confine the focus to the last five years, when the number of colleges participating in the NIRF ranking grew rapidly, Tamil Nadu retained its top position (with the exception of 2022, when Delhi was on a par with Tamil Nadu).
Though the larger pattern of four States (Tamil Nadu, Delhi, Kerala, and West Bengal) holding the larger chunk of top colleges has remained for all the years, there have been variations in the share of the rest of the States in some years. For instance, Andhra Pradesh had one top college in both 2022 and 2021 in the ranking, whereas Karnataka’s share went up to three in 2021. Barring Gujarat and Maharashtra, the big States hardly had representation in most years.
Concentrated or dispersed?
Is the performance of Tamil Nadu in congruence with its motto of development with social justice? Specifically, are the top-ranked colleges largely confined to Chennai and thereby catering primarily to the urban elites and advantaged social groups or are they dispersed and catering to rural and socially disadvantaged groups? Chennai accounts for only nine (26%) colleges. Coimbatore, with an equal share, competes with Chennai quite consistently. Tiruchirappalli, with five colleges (14%), is next. The remaining 12 (out of 35) colleges are widely spread across 11 places. This broad pattern was seen in other years too. The largest beneficiaries from Chennai, Coimbatore, and Tiruchirappalli are likely to be urban dwellers. Yet, it is also likely that the top-ranked 23 colleges from these three cities, which belong to three different regions, might be equally serving the poor and disadvantaged social groups both from these regions as well as those contiguous to them. This is because Tamil Nadu not only has one of the highest reservation quotas, but also has been quite effective in its implementation of the reservation policy.
Additionally, since more than one-third of the top-ranked colleges are dispersed across places, they not only cater largely to the rural and under-served areas, but also provide an opportunity for quality education for students from poor and disadvantaged social groups who do not have the economic resources and social networks to study in colleges from Chennai, Coimbatore, and Tiruchirappalli. Thus, the colleges based out of Chennai in general and other districts in particular promote both quality and inclusion, and thereby contribute to the goal of development with social justice. Here too, Tamil Nadu’s experience is consistent over the years. The only other State which comes somewhat close is Kerala.
Tamil Nadu’s impressive and consistent performance in higher education shows that quality and inclusion can be achieved together and consistently. This finding should prompt other southern States, which also have a reasonably inclusive and effective social welfare architecture, to introspect why they lag far behind and inspire them to take action to rectify issues.
Sunny Jose is RBI Chair Professor at Council for Social Development, Hyderabad. P Raghupathi is ICSSR Senior Fellow at Council for Social Development, Hyderabad. The views expressed are personal