The sixth edition of the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) for higher education was released by the Union Minister of Education on September 9 2021. Jubilant are those that have made it to the top 100 or have improved their rankings or scores by a few notches. Downcast are those that have slid in rank or score but are still upbeat as they are in the coveted list. Disheartened, they must already be busy finding out their faults. Those with no rank may be ready with their excuses and commitment to do better next year. Since the NIRF ranks only the top 100, an estimated 935 universities, in any case, are bound to remain shut out. Each higher educational institution in the country undergoes the trauma of hope and despair a few times a year when the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), Times Higher Education (THE) and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) rankings are published.
Ranking may offer many advantages. Its signalling effect may help students, faculty, and prospective employer, respectively, to help them choose institutions for admission, to enhance chances for securing research funding, and target campuses for hirings. It may promote competition among institutions, which in turn leads to an overall improvement in their quality. As in present policy, ranking leads to privileges such as getting autonomy, power to offer open and distance mode programmes, and permission to enter into collaboration with foreign universities.
The most useful purpose that the ranking can serve — but ignored so far — is to identify areas of improvement and then proactively to work to overcome those deficiencies and thus ensure quality and promote excellence. This would mitigate the huge difference that presently exists between the best and the rest of the Higher Education Institutions. After all, no nation can afford a few ‘islands of excellence surrounded by the sea of mediocrity’, condemning them to eternal inferiority.
Basis of metrics
Universities ought to offer quality dissemination of knowledge, skill and application orientation, but to attain excellence, they must make a seminal contribution in research, publications, patents and innovations. Since performance of universities cannot be measured by a single indicator, they are assessed, and ranked on a metric of measures. Most give considerable weightage to research output, quality and impact thereof. The ARWU ranks universities solely on the basis of their research performance whereas THE and QS, respectively, accord 60% and 20% weightage to research. Following the trend, NIRF accords 30% weightage to Research Performance and Professional Practices (RPP).
This, in turn, is measured through the combined metric of publications (PU, 35%), combined metric of quality of publications (QP, 35%), IPR and patent (IPR, 15%) and Footprint of Projects and Professional Practice (FPPP, 15%).
Analysed in this context, even the top 100 universities in NIRF, present a very disquieting trend which warrants urgent attention. The NIRF 2020 ranking reveals that the best university in the country scored 92.16% on research performance. The score drastically declined to 60.52% for the 10th best university. Going further down, the 20th and the 50th best universities, respectively, scored 50.32% and 28.69%. In the case of the 100th best university, the RPP declined to as low as 4.35%. It is not difficult to guess the state of affairs of the remaining 935 universities in the country.
On salaries and research
NIRF does not disclose data on the total number of teachers but amongst a few statistics that it reports includes the total expenditure on salaries of teaching and non-teaching staff bunched together and the total number of PhD students enrolled in each of the ranked universities. Using the above two as proxy for the size of a university in terms of the faculty members and research staff, they were transposed against the Research and Professional Practice (RPP) ranks grouped in 10 categories.
The data disclose in no uncertain terms that on an average, the higher the expenditure on salaries of the staff, the higher is the ranking of the university. For example, the average annual expenditure on salaries for the top 10 universities works out to be ₹391.72 crore. As against this, the universities ranked between 41-50 were found to be spending only ₹119.64 crore on salaries. Expectedly, those ranked at the bottom between 91-100, spent only ₹79.26 crore. So is the case with regard to the research scholars. Data discerns that the top 10 universities in NIRF had an average of 2,627 research scholars, whereas those ranked between 41-50 had only 1,036 PhD students on the rolls. Reinforcing the trend, the universities ranked in the bottom 10 had no more than 165 research scholars. The larger the number of research scholars, the higher the ranks of the universities in terms of RPP. What was already known intuitively is now proven by the data.
To conclude, the fund and the faculty, the two most neglected areas, are critical not only for research performance but also for the overall ranking, as the two bear a high degree of positive correlation.
Furqan Qamar, a Professor in finance at Jamia Millia Islamia, is a former Secretary General of the Association of Indian Universities (AIU) and also a former Vice-Chancellor of the Central University of Himachal Pradesh and the University of Rajasthan