Last week, a single event elicited rather different headlines in the India media. At the release of the annual Quacquarelli Symonds’ list of the world’s best universities, some publications focused on India’s debut among the top 200, while others highlighted that we still don’t feature among the first 100. All of them were, of course, playing on a recurring theme: the absence of Indian institutions from international rankings of universities.

Every year, when the Times Higher Education World University Rankings or the QS World University Rankings are announced, Indian institutions fail to make the mark. But academics say this is less a reflection of India’s higher education system and more an indicator of the deficiencies of the rankings.

Indian universities, they say, aren’t as bad as the rankings make them out to be. Quite the opposite, it is the ranking system that is loaded against countries like India: by failing to capture each country’s ground realities, the system fails to recognise even the best institutions. If the Indian varsities wanted to focus on rankings, the academics say, they would fare much better. But this doesn’t happen because their priorities are different.

Ingredients of a higher rank

Typically, rankings of world universities, like the ones compiled by the Times Higher Education and Quacquarelli Symonds, take into account multiple performance indicators. These range from the number of research papers produced and the number of citations those papers received to the international faculty and international student ratio. The Times Higher Education also places emphasis on citations per faculty member for their research work.

While all these factors are important to ensure a diverse, research-focused environment, Indian universities often don’t make it to the lists only because of their own unwillingness to participate by providing enough data.

Last year, a report in the education magazine Careers 360 examined how a lesser-known Panjab University ranked better than the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management in the Times Higher Education list. It found that many institutions simply don’t care to report actual data to the ranking surveys.

“The fact that Panjab University has performed better shows that if a university takes the ranking seriously and provides sufficient information, it could get a reasonably good rank,” the Careers 360 report said.

This was echoed by Calcutta University’s pro-vice-chancellor Dhrubajyoti Chattopadhyay in 2013 when the QS rankings were released. “Rankings do not matter to us and we do not hanker for them,” he told The Telegraph. “Our strength has always been academics, so if we are judged on this aspect we should be among the top 200 or 250 universities in the world.”

Quantity or quality?

Besides, the primary objective of most institutions in India is to teach as many people as possible rather than to create a knowledge base or superior research facilities.

“Most of them are just teaching institutes; they are not driven by research,” Premchand Palety, chief executive of C-Fore, which ranks Indian educational institutes, told The Telegraph in 2013. “They disseminate knowledge but are nowhere in terms of knowledge creation. Most ranking organisations all over the world evaluate an institute by research output.”

“Besides, our universities don’t document their systems, processes and outputs,” Palety added. “So when any agency requests them for data, they don’t have it ready and perhaps they think it’s a waste of time collecting it. Our universities are cocooned in a comfort zone.”

The China solution

Those who have examined India’s absence from international rankings argue that it’s better to disregard rankings and focus on educating great numbers, especially a big section of the population depends on public-funded universities.

A research paper authored by Vidya Rajiv Yervedkar and Gauri Tiwari of Symbiosis International University last year examined why world rankings continue to elude India’s universities.

“The phenomenon of global rankings is situated in a centre-periphery paradigm. There are a number of factors that put American and British universities at an inequitable advantage,” it said. “Thus, the terrain of global rankings is not a level playing field: it has gone around the whole of Third World – the shirking is not India’s alone.”

The paper used the example of China’s recent surge in world rankings to explain how some countries are seemingly gaming the system by focusing more on the indicators that the rankings consider. It added that China’s measures are “palliative rather than curative”.

“Chinese universities, guided by imitation rather than creativity, deploy less than admirable means to achieve global rankings,” the paper said. “The most successful manoeuvre, it appears, is increasing the number of research publication in high impact international journals, without an underlying accent on original knowledge creation.”

Cautioning India against single-mindedly focusing on building a few world-class universities with just global competence in mind, the paper noted that limited financial resources in the country could find better use in tackling more structural problems.

“Further, the question how well a country like India will be served by diverting scarce resources to building internationally – competitive research intensive universities is also worth considering,” the paper said. “It emerges that there are more constructive and purposeful ways to apply public funding than to make exorbitant investments to get a few universities to feature in the global rankings.”