The National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) recently released the India Rankings for 2023. This is the eighth consecutive edition of rankings of higher education institutions in five categories — overall, universities, colleges, research institutions, and innovation — and eight subject domains — engineering, management, pharmacy, medical, dental, law, architecture and planning, and agriculture and allied sectors. The NIRF evaluates institutions on five parameters: teaching, learning and resources; graduation outcome; research and professional practices; outreach and inclusivity; and perception. Ranks are assigned based on the sum of marks secured by institutions on each of these parameters. Notwithstanding some of the criticisms on the methodology adopted and the parameters chosen by the Ministry of Education, a scrutiny of the 2023 edition as well as some of the available data on higher education raises some important issues warranting policy attention.
The first is the issue of participation of institutions. According to the Ministry of Education, in this edition of NIRF, 5,543 institutions offered themselves for ranking under overall, category-specific or domain-specific ranking. In all, 8,686 applications for ranking were submitted by these institutions. This has to be seen in conjunction with the total number of universities and colleges in India. As per the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) 2021, there were 1,113 universities and 43,796 colleges in 2020-21. This implies that only 12.3% of higher educational institutions participated in the ranking process. That there is near to no information on the parameters decided by NIRF for the remaining 87.7% of higher education institutions is a matter of concern, especially for a nation aspiring to reap rich demographic dividends. This issue gets accentuated further when we examine the rural-urban divide in participation. The list of top 100 colleges shows scant presence of colleges from rural areas. AISHE data show that about 43% of the universities and 61.4% colleges are in rural areas. The lack of participation of institutions from rural areas raises questions on the inherent urban bias of the ranking framework, reinforced by the choice of parameters.
The second issue is the incongruence between quantity and quality. Of the top 100 colleges ranked by NIRF, 35 are from Tamil Nadu, 32 from Delhi, 14 from Kerala, and the remaining are from the rest of India. According to AISHE, Uttar Pradesh has the highest number of colleges in the country, followed by Maharashtra and Karnataka. The list of top 100 colleges does not feature a single college from U.P. It features three colleges from Maharashtra and two from Karnataka. The fact that 81% of high-quality colleges are in three States highlights the need for a mission to improve quality across the country, with both the Union government and the States earmarking substantial funds in their respective budgets for this.
Quality differences are evident between private and government institutions as well. In the overall rankings, the highest rank secured by a private institution is 15. In the university rankings, the highest rank secured by a private institution is six. There is also tremendous scope for many more State universities to figure in this list. If the quality of State universities is enhanced, it would also serve the purpose of serving students in rural locations.
The third issue stems from the close correlation between faculty strength and rankings. A comparison between the top 100 and remaining institutions shows vast differences in this regard. The average number of faculty in the top 100 universities is 645, while for the remaining universities it is only 242. In the case of colleges, it is 173 for colleges in the top 100 list and 71 for the remaining institutes. Needless to say, quality education cannot be provided with brick and mortar alone. Even in the case of engineering, where the ranking is often advertised by the institutions, only 33.98% adhere to the AICTE-prescribed faculty-student ratio of 1:20.
Faculty strength and quality also get reflected in scientific publications: 87.71% of the scholarly output from India comes from eligible institutions in the overall category. This means that 12.3% of institutions which have participated in the ranking contribute close to 90% of scholarly output in the country. This is even more startling in the case of engineering, where 99.98% of total scientific publications came from the institutions participating in the rankings. Interestingly, in management, 50% of the institutions which applied for being included in the rankings had zero publications.
The rankings underscore the urgent need for quality enhancement in the higher education system. This requires substantial financial resources. India’s share in the overall world scientific publications is about 4.81%. In comparison, China’s share of world publications increased from 5% in 2000 to 26% in 2018. This was facilitated by massive research investments by the Chinese government. Between 2000 and 2017, as per an article by Shumin Qiu, Claudia Steinwender and Pierre Azoula in the LSE Impact Blog, the number of Chinese universities increased by 140%, research faculty increased by 69%, and public research funding increased ten-fold. If rankings are to serve the purpose of being an input for informed evidence-based policy decisions, then budgetary outlays for higher education needs a quantum jump in India.
M. Suresh Babu is Professor of Economics at IIT Madras. Views are personal