The New Colleges Ranking Framework is a Good Idea – But Will it Help?

While the NIRF is a fairly sincere and competent effort, it is unlikely to bring about any real change to India’s higher education.

On September 29, the Ministry of Human Resource Development unveiled its India-Centric Ranking Framework for colleges and universities. If all goes as planned, in April 2016, the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) will release the rankings for all the 122 centrally-funded institutions, including all central universities, IITs and IIMs, in the first round. Subsequently, other participating institutions will be ranked as well. While participation in the initiative is open to both private and public institutions, it is not mandatory.

NIRF will use five broad parameters to determine university/institution rankings: 1) Teaching, learning and resources (TLR); 2) Research, Consulting and Collaborative Performance (RPC); 3) Graduation Outcomes (GO); 4) Outreach and Inclusivity (OI); and 5) Perception (PR). Within each parameter, there are a number of other categories on which institutions will be graded. To begin with, they will be categorised either as 1) teaching institutions or 2) teaching-cum-research institutions, and the weight assigned to each of the five parameters will be accordingly different. Also, engineering, management and comprehensive institutions are to be graded separately since they are dissimilar kinds of institutions. The reasoning is that comparisons across them are both unfair and impossible. While the framework for engineering and management institutions has been finalised, the same will be done for other kinds of institutions in the coming weeks.

The imperative for creating India-specific rankings has come from the poor performance of our universities in world university rankings. Many higher education experts have for long argued that our universities rank low or are entirely missing from the charts because many of the parameters used by international ranking bodies such as Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), Times Higher Education (THE) and Shanghai Jiao Tong University (the Shanghai Rankings) — especially international reputation and internationalisation but also research output — are insensitive to the higher education scenario in countries such as India where the goal of improving access to higher education, whether by building new institutions in far-flung places or through caste-based reservations, has been a bigger priority than improving the quality of education. In particular, world university rankings by QS and others give far too much emphasis on internationalisation (the presence of international students and faculty, among other things) and reputation (which favours older, established Western institutions), areas in which India’s universities are weak, and ignore parameters such as social inclusion, about which we have been more attentive given the context of our history, level of development, ethnic diversity and social make up.

Flawed ranking systems

From this perspective, India’s universities perform poorly in world rankings because of biases in the ranking system. Of course, this reasoning downplays the fact that our universities are underperformers on quality research output; and we are ourselves responsible for promoting the cause of access to education for political gains at the expense of improving the quality of education.

The plan to develop an India-specific university ranking system would likely not have gone ahead without Smriti Irani who was receptive to the view that the fault lay with the methodologies employed by ranking organisations and less with us. After taking charge of MHRD, she quickly appointed a committee to devise India-specific rankings. At that time, many observers expressed reservations about the plan. and said it was far more important to pay attention to improving the overall quality of education.

Now that the NIFR has become operational, critics have no choice but to deal with it. It therefore becomes necessary to revisit some of the older doubts and address newer issues.

To begin with, it is important to understand that all university rankings systems have flaws. Claims to the contrary are simply boastful. Over the years, since the Shanghai Rankings were launched in 2003, some of these have been addressed, newer ones identified, while others have proved difficult to deal with in any satisfactory manner. It is also important to understand that all university ranking schemes have their share of supporters, critics and those who find both merits and faults. Only a few reject the rankings outright.

The Indian government, its supporters and those who were part of the group responsible for creating the NIRF have claimed that the creation of the NIRF is a big achievement. Irani described the creation of NIRF as a “revolutionary step.”

Methodological limitations of NIFR

Critics of this initiative have from the beginning argued that it is quite unnecessary to develop India-specific rankings and more important to focus on improving the quality of education, an area where the government’s efforts have been weak and disappointing. These criticisms have much merit; the government, the current one as well as previous ones, has never pursued the cause of improving quality with any zeal or sincerity. The MHRD’s casual approach towards dealing with plagiarism in Indian academia is a case in point. Critics are also right in questioning the need for NIFR given that the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) already grades higher education institutions.

Finally, some will point to methodological limitations of NIFR but simultaneously applaud it as a better alternative to similar rankings produced by many magazines which are even more subjective in their methodology and almost-certainly biased in favour of private universities who are an important source of revenue in the form of advertisements. Prospective students are known to use these rankings to make decisions about which institutions to attend.

Once we acknowledge that India-specific rankings will have a different set of limitations and flaws, and that any such initiative will find critics, supporters and those in-between, we can begin to address other issues.

Perhaps one of the more important ones is that we need to be clear about what exactly the India-specific rankings will measure and for what ends.

Based on the five parameters that will be used to determine rankings and the weight assigned to each, earlier worries that social inclusion—especially caste-based reservations—would be given undue importance in the rankings have been laid to rest. Outreach and Inclusivity (OI)—which includes Outreach Footprint (Continuing Education, Service); Percentage of Students from Other States/Countries-Region Diversity; Percentage of Women Students and Faculty; Percentage of Economically and Socially Disadvantaged Students; and Facilities for Physically Challenged Students—will count for no more than 15 per cent of the total. As such, NIRF will rank institutions on the basis of some combination of quality of education, social inclusion and perception, with most of the emphasis on quality. This was not evident when India-specific rankings were first proposed last year.

Media reports that OI will severely disadvantage private institutions in the rankings since they have not implemented caste-based reservations are plain wrong. OI has been assigned 15 per cent weight for both teaching-focused and research-cum-teaching institutions. Furthermore, within that 15 per cent, only 20 marks (3 per cent of the total) are assigned for admitting “economically and socially disadvantaged students.” Any half-decent private university should be able to overcome this disadvantage.

NIRF’s inclusion of OI is a step in the right direction. Many international higher education experts have been calling upon universities to pay more attention to community engagement which is seen as one of the fundamental missions of higher education.

In sum, it appears that NIRF will be, wittingly or not, devoted primarily to measuring the quality of education even as it acknowledges that community engagement and inclusion are also important roles of higher education institutions.

Purpose of NIRF

Finally: what purpose does the NIRF serve? In the statement included in the NIRF release for engineering and management schools, Irani said, “The primary purpose of this framework is to galvanise Indian institutions towards a competitive environment that exists in the world today.”

It is not quite clear how India-specific rankings will ‘galvanize’ our universities towards a competitive environment since both the government and almost all higher education institutions have been quite indifferent and resistant to matters of quality. To believe that NIRF will make them see the light is absurd. Moreover, according to Irani:

I sincerely hope institutions will use this ranking framework to introspect and make sincere efforts to improve their standing, which will be beneficial for the country.

Again, there is no reason why universities will bother to ‘introspect’ and make ‘sincere efforts’ to improve their standing when they have not done so in the past. After all, participation in NIRF is not mandatory. One may also recall that it required the government to make NAAC accreditation mandatory and to link it to funding before universities lined up for accreditation. Even then, earlier this year in February, it was reported that none of the 11 universities in Bihar had obtained NAAC accreditation!

It is more likely that at least in the immediate future, the rankings produced by NIRF will be more useful as an alternative to those prepared  by  newsmagazines and do nothing to help ‘galvanise Indian institutions towards a competitive environment’ or persuade them to use the ‘ranking framework to introspect and make sincere efforts to improve their standing’.

On balance, NIRF appears to be well-conceived in that it seeks to primarily measure the quality of education but at the same time it acknowledges the important role of universities in community engagement and inclusion. If executed with competence, NIRF rankings will in all likelihood become a useful tool for students during the admission season. Other than that, however, its uses may remain limited in the foreseeable future. Given that government colleges and university are already required to obtain accreditation from NAAC, most of them may not be particularly interested in the ranking system since they are not required to do so. India’s universities are not known to compete with each other to hire or retain star faculty or for better research output. They have no incentives for finishing first or second. As such, while the NIRF is a fairly sincere and competent effort, it is unlikely to bring about any real change to India’s higher education.

Pushkar is an assistant professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa.