Jamia Climbs 7 Places on University Rankings. But What Does That Mean?

Jamia Millia Islamia rose from 19 to 12 in the 2020 rankings

New Delhi: The Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) has improved its position from 19 to 12 this year among Indian institutions in the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings.

The improvement in performance comes against the backdrop of more institutions from India finding themselves being evaluated this year.

JMI has been in the limelight for several months over the protests by its students against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), passed by the Parliament in December 2019. Several students from the university were later arrested for alleged connections to the riots in northeast Delhi in February, including students Safoora Zargar and Meeran Haider.

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An official statement from the varsity’s public relations office said JMI is among a few academic institutions in India “that has not only maintained its position globally, but has also improved its ranking among Indian institutions assessed” by the ranking enterprise.

This year, the THE listed 1,527 institutions from 93 countries, up from 1,400 institutions from 92 countries last year. The number of Indian institutions increased from 56 to 63.

Many experts have noted, however, that these ranking exercises are poorly designed and often fail to faithfully represent the merits and demerits of each university. At the same time, the fact that the rankings continue to influence some important decisions and shape perceptions could prove beneficial to some institutes, especially JMI.

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Thomas Manuel, winner of The Hindu Playwright Award 2016, had reported in 2017 for The Wire that between the first two editions of the Indian government’s National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF), launched in 2015, JMI had jumped up over 70 places – from the 83rd to the 12th position. This, Manuel argued, pointed to the ranking system’s poor design, which allowed small changes in quality to translate to large differences. In the NIRF 2020 edition, JMI is at the 10th place.

While JMI has jumped up a smaller number of spots in the THE rankings, there are still many reasons to not over-interpret the jump’s significance. As it happens, in April this year, seven IITs announced they would be boycotting the THE rankings principally because, they said in a letter, they were dissatisfied that THE handled the data in a particularly opaque way. And JMI’s improvement is also by seven places.

Overall, the ranking exercise is fundamentally rooted in an attempt to condense a large number of factors that go into determining academic excellence in a small set of numbers. It often misses unique features that may not be represented at the department level, such as a vibrant student-politics scene, freedom from bureaucratic interference or a campus culture more hospitable to lower-caste students.

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However, for their flaws, THE and other ranking systems continue to influence higher education around the world in two ways: where students choose to study and, perhaps more importantly, where governments choose to invest more money.

The University Grants Commission mooted the ‘Institutes of Eminence’ programme in 2017 to help the government identify institutions to receive higher financial support as well as exceptional allowances to improve their international rankings.

Ultimately, a better-ranked university tends to be a better-perceived university, and has the potential to draw foreign students, and also serves as a form of ‘soft diplomacy’ between the origin and destination countries.

In addition, the seven IITs that quit the THE rankings earlier this year also faulted the fact that the ranking allotted too much weight to ‘perception’.

So has JMI gained?

JMI vice-chancellor Najma Akhtar seems to think so: “The performance reflects JMI’s growing international presence and outreach besides its impetus on high quality research, publications and teaching.”

Mohammed Osama, a PhD candidate in JMI’s department of political science, said, “Jamia becoming the number one university [among India’s central universities] will surely give food for thought to those people who think Jamia is only about road-jams and protests.”

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However, he also remains pessimistic about JMI’s prospects in the wider political context. For one, he said the better rank couldn’t reduce the anger the Bharatiya Janata Party has concretised against the institution – and to which the party has “added a nationalist flavour”.

“The whole issue of protests and BJP maligning JMI since December wasn’t the origin of Jamia’s bad reputation in the populace,” he told The Wire. Instead, he pegged the issue to the Batla House encounter case of 2008, when two terrorists who hid out in Jamia Nagar were killed in a police encounter that left one policeman dead, and triggered protests – including by JMI students – against the incident.

“Whatever happened on December 15 last year – was it a reaction to just two days of protests [against the CAA] or was it the culmination of hatred and anger brewing for many years?”