Education

So You Think You Can Make Sense of University Rankings?

Though they have their uses, university rankings can cause confusion to those who follow them casually. They need to be understood and interpreted wisely.

University rankings – both national and international – have become kind of tiresome. Hardly a week or two goes by before some organisation or other releases a fresh set of rankings, whether national, regional, global or something else. This is not to say that the exercise is entirely useless, only that there is already a bit too much of the rankings game going on and it is getting worse.

University rankings can confuse those who follow them casually. They need to be understood and interpreted with a measure of wisdom that has generally been lacking.

The Times Higher Education (THE) recently released the Emerging Economies University Rankings (EEUR) 2018. It is an expansion of what was previously the BRICS University Rankings. The change was brought about “to reflect emerging potential of a diverse, innovative and ambitious range of countries.” Instead of universities from the five BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the Emerging Economies group includes 42 countries. This alone implies that comparing the EEUR 2018 and the BRICS University Rankings 2017 is not entirely meaningful. More countries in the mix typically means more competing institutions, so that many universities that may have ranked higher in the BRICS Rankings 2017 would be expected to lose ground to better institutions not included earlier.

If we look at how Indian universities fared in EEUR 2018, For example, many Indian universities’ ranks slipped relative to the BRICS 2017 roster in the EEUR 2018, including IIT-Delhi and IIT-Madras. This is not surprising. A few universities also did better, including IIT-Kharagpur, NIT Rourkela and Tezpur University, suggesting that competition alone does not explain why some universities slide in the rankings. Their performance over the last year will have played a role, too.

Incidentally, the number of ranked Indian universities increased from 27 in 2017 to 42 in 2018. Newspapers and government officials have noted this as a favourable development. India finished second behind China – which increased its tally from 52 to 63 – in the total number of ranked universities. That the number of ranked Indian universities increased has also been celebrated.

However, the reality may be more complicated. For example, the number of ranked Indian universities could have gone up simply because more of the better universities chose to compete in the EEUR 2018 than they did in the BRICS Rankings.

Other than the total numbers of ranked universities from China and India, it is also worth looking at the top 10 or top 20 universities in the list. China has eight in the top 20, of which seven are in the top 10. No other country has more than one university in the top 10. Russia, South Africa and Taiwan have one each. The only top 20 university from India is the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, at 13. Overall, only eight Indian universities are in the top 100. China has 28.

If the larger Indian presence in the rankings is worthy of applause, the near-absence of Indian universities in the top 20 is deserving of dismay. The gap between the best Chinese and Indian universities is enormous. China has become a “higher education superpower”, in the words of Phil Baty, editorial director of THE Global Rankings; India’s universities, it appears, are still ‘emerging’.

The gap between China’s best universities and all the rest is visible in another, more obvious way: the overall points received by various universities across five categories (citations, industry income, international outlook, research and teaching). The two Chinese superstars in the list – Peking University and Tsinghua University – are the only two institutions with 80+ points. Notably, these two count among the top 30 worldwide.

Lomonosov Moscow State University, ranked third, scored 74. IISc scored 46.5; IIT-Bombay, the next Indian university on the list, scored 41.

Another way to appreciate how confusing the rankings business is to compare rankings of Indian universities in the EEUR 2018 and those prepared by the National Institute Ranking Framework (NIRF) in 2018.

The older IITs dominate the top 10 in both – but curiously, Banaras Hindu University (BHU), ranked ninth in the 2018 national rankings, is placed in the 201-250 bracket in the EEUR 2018. On the other hand, Tezpur University ranked among the top 100 institutions in the EEUR 2018 but ranks 46th in the NIRF.

Other curious cases include BITS Pilani, ranked 26th in the NIRF and 251-300 in the EEUR 2018. The Indian School of Mines/IIT-Dhandbad ranks 146th, way above BITS Pilani. Jawaharlal Nehru University, sixth on the NIRF, does not figure at all, perhaps because it did not compete in the rankings this year.

The larger point is that there are several inconsistencies in the ranks achieved by various institutions on different lists, many due to differences in methodology. The end-users must be careful in interpreting them. With more types of rankings being prepared and circulated, it is evident that the task of making sense of it all will become even more challenging – and frustrating.

Pushkar is director of The International Centre Goa (ICG), Dona Paula. He tweets at @PushHigherEd. The views expressed here are personal.

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