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Podcast | Digging Deeper: Why do Indian universities not feature in global rankings?

India is the fifth most represented country on THE rankings last year, yes, but there is not one institution within the top 200.

Moneycontrol Contributor @moneycontrolcom


Moneycontrol Contributors

Let us begin with a story, a real one that was told and retold in the corridors of an Indian university sometime in the nineties.

A European observer was walking through an administrative block within the campus and said later, "I have come to believe finally that there is a God. Because only a superpower like that can sort the amount of paperwork I have seen lying unattended on these desks."

And that brings us to the question, are we as a nation bogged down by red tape and bureaucratic inertia when it comes to education? Do we spend too much time sweating the small stuff and hence forget the big picture? Do we know how to cultivate and nurture intellectual capital?

Each time global rankings of the best universities in the world are released, you can imagine the headlines the next day in Indian newspapers. Actually, you do not have to imagine them – you know them because, as if clockwork, it is a chorus of lamentation about Indian universities not making it to the top 200 yet again. What about the IITs! What about AIIMS! The toughest exams to crack! And no sign of them?! The system is broken! We need an overhaul! The rankings are broken! They need an overhaul! Etc etc.

India is the fifth most represented country on THE rankings last year, yes, but there is not one institution within the top 200, which has Oxford right at the top for three years running now. IISc is the highest ranked, placing in the 251-300 cohort. IIT Indore is the highest placed IIT – ahead of IITs Delhi, Bombay, Kanpur, Madras. Reason enough for a whole host of IITians to pooh-pooh the rankings altogether.

The question however remains – why do Indian universities rarely ever appear on the The Times Higher Education rankings or the QS World Rankings? Do these rankings matter? What are the systemic issues with these rankings? Is India investing enough money in the education sector, specially in R&D? Or as Ritesh Kumar Singh, former assistant director of the Finance Commission of India, asked in an op-ed recently, why does a country with so much research talent produce little homegrown innovation? Let’s find out right here on Digging Deeper with Moneycontrol with me Rakesh Sharma.

Where have we let ourselves down?

As Ritesh says, despite a strong engineering talent pool, low costs and a good knowledge of English, India has failed to invest properly in research and development. That working knowledge of English has held us in good stead in comparison to the Chinese, but not likely for long.

We quote, "Spending is so low by global standards that it holds back India's economic, technological and strategic ambitions. Successive governments have failed to act. A lax intellectual property regime, foolish sectoral regulations and a protectionist trade policy have for years deterred R&D, especially in the private sector. It would be comforting to think that this year's election will change everything. But government and opposition leaders alike are showing little interest. It is high time that we woke up to the challenge that India faces, overhaul regulations, and nudge companies to put money into research and innovation."

As Ritesh points out, India's R&D spending amounts to 0.7% of gross domestic product, a fraction of China's 2.1%, let alone Japan's 3.1%. The figure has been hovering around this level for two decades; the bulk of the meagre spending is accounted for by the government and a few strategic sectors, notably atomic energy, space and defense, according to India's official Economic Survey.

He further says, "When it comes to corporate R&D, India does even worse. The contribution of Indian companies, both private and public sector taken together, to total R&D is just 44% against a global average of 71%, says a recent study by the government-backed National Science and Technology Management Information System (NSTMIS)."

For private sector companies alone, he says, the share is a meagre 38.1%.

Hence, it should be little surprise then that efforts to lift the manufacturing industry's share in GDP from around 15% have repeatedly failed. And as Ritesh says, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Make in India campaign, launched with much fanfare in 2014, has not moved the dial nor is it likely to do so.

The point we are making is simply this: the general apathy towards research as an academic pursuit percolates down from our educational institutions to other areas and as Ritesh says, because of this, major Indian corporates tend to be inward-oriented as selling in heavily-protected domestic markets is easier than selling in intensely-competitive export markets that require innovative products, created by higher R&D spending.

He further rues that India's lax intellectual property rights regime, especially poor enforcement and implementation, tends to discourage profit-maximizing companies in the private sector to spend on R&D.

He also says, "Moreover, the Narendra Modi government has recently adopted new protectionist rules, inspired partly by U.S. President Donald Trump. By reversing earlier moves to liberalize imports, for the benefit of politically-influential local rivals, New Delhi is recreating a protected environment where local companies suck profits out of captive markets without worrying about having to invest in R&D to ward off competition."

The writer hopes that this damaging legislation is withdrawn. Inward-oriented Indian companies need more incentives to compete -- and invest in innovation -- not fewer and as he points out, foreign multinationals are setting up global innovation centers to tap India's low-cost English-speaking engineers and technicians and this shows there is no shortage of talent in India. The problem is with the commercial rules.

What about R&D spending?

Against this backdrop, most of the country's R&D spending comes from the government. But even this is often inefficiently spent. Ritesh says, "R&D programs are often long-term in nature, but political horizons are short-term. India's constituent states compete for central government funds that are allocated more on political priority then intrinsic merit. Independent state-run research institutions that work in silos often ignore each other and the country's university research centers. A culture of awarding government contracts to the lowest bidder, while neglecting questions of quality and scientific pedigree, tend to discourage riskier investment proposals."

To ease the logjam, he suggests that a greater share of government R&D funds should be directed to universities, not the institutes. That will channel resources toward younger researchers brimming with energy and ideas, rather than established research programs and adds that India must target 2% of GDP for R&D spending if it wants to be seen as an innovative country.

We have application, not innovation

Let us however get back to the point that we started with. The question about the cracks in our education system through which excellence slips and disappears.

Because come to think of it, we as a nation are obsessed with percentage of marks, ranks and divisions. And the schooling of our children is an obsessive preoccupation for a majority of Indian parents. The need for academic excellence, clearing competitive exams, topping a class is ingrained into students right at home. As a data story on Moneycontrol pointed out, Indian parents spend the most amount of time on their children's homework and nearly 62 percent parents in India on an average spend about 12 hours a week to help children with their studies. These enlightening nuggets come to you courtesy a World Economic Forum (WEF) report.

This can be attributed to intense competition to score better marks and also to the pressure exerted upon students to clear entrance exams and compete for limited seats in top institutions.

Pressure gets even more concentrated because of India's increasing young population. According to the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD)'s latest available projections, currently, over 55.9 crore of India’s population is between 6-23 years,

But the most startling question that the piece asks is whether the high percentage of the time parents spend helping their kids is because they do not have enough confidence in the country's education system?

The lack of infrastructure, teachers and adequate facilities in state-run schools face is an open secret and as the piece reports, around 55 percent of parents with children in state-funded educational institutions said that they would send their child to a fee-paying school if they could afford it.

This should cause some concern because if the grassroots of our education system are not being nourished, how will it affect the future of the 65 percent of all school-going children in 20 states — about 113 million, who are   enrolled in government schools? These figures are courtesy the District Information System for Education (DISE) data. About 6,40,000 teachers in the government schools across the country are yet to acquire the qualifications prescribed by National Council for Teacher Education, the DISE report cited in the piece, has said.

Even more disturbing is this figure. The piece cites a rough estimation based on the government sources that there is a shortage of 30-40 percent faculty in colleges and universities at all levels.

We quote, "On an average, the Pupil Teacher Ratio (PTR) stood at 21 in 2016, according to the MHRD report. The report also stated that the PTR had remained unchanged for the past five years, indicating a shortage of teachers as India's student population grows. Cost of education in private schools remain one the major reasons for parent's inability to send their children to private institutions. Over the last few years, media reports suggest the fees have gone up by nearly 20 percent."

The question that needs to be asked though is this. Are private fee-charging schools doing a good job or are they, as the piece points out, just mushrooming ‘teaching shops’?

The compulsive culture of tuitions

The piece cites ASER 2017 to inform that nearly 40 percent students attending government schools also opt for tuition. But we know of course, even without looking for statistics that even if their children are in private schools, parents tend to reach out to additional help in the form of what are commonly known as "extra classes." And yes a punishing regimen of tuitions, follows.

The questions about whether the rote learning model of education works for us are relevant as also whether governments with strident ideologies should find it easy to tweak syllabi to further their own agendas. The conflicts between the government and many universities and institutes including JNU, AMU, Delhi University, FTII, etc show that education and state interference are mutually incompatible, but that is another story for another time.

The questions of rankings

Pramod K. Nayar, who teaches at the University of Hyderabad wrote a piece in The Wire in October 2018 to try and make sense of how a variety of ranking organisations work with ranking parameters and criteria, including undergraduate teaching, research, teaching, employability, industry income and internationalisation. And if the ranking that emerges from this morass of information means anything.  And as he puts it, if there is anything that we can do further to better the learning and teaching experience as we rush into the headlong halls of globalised ranking. He asks and we quote, "Another question this shift into the rankings mode begs is: how best can we recalibrate ourselves to alleviate the tensions between a quantitative ranking system and the social needs higher education has been designed for until now? Can the former enable the latter?"

Can there be synergy between the ideal of educational values, and the reality of market value? As he says, "The former focuses on critical thinking, analytical abilities, social agendas and the inculcation of citizenship ideals that are unquantifiable and intangible because they manifest in our primary beneficiaries (or victims, depending on how we see higher education) in the long-term. The market value scheme, which is industry-driven, orients the project of neoliberal higher education training towards developing particular skill-sets for the labour market."

He also addresses the attack on public institutions and cites noted scholar Henry Giroux and we quote, "What we are witnessing is an attack on universities not because they are failing, but because they are public. This is not just an attack on political liberty but also an attack on dissent, critical education, and any public institution that might exercise a democratising influence on the nation. In this case the autonomy of institutions such as higher education, particularly public institutions are threatened as much by state politics as by corporate interests. How else to explain in neoliberal societies such as the U.S., U.K. and India the massive defunding of public institutions of higher education, the raising of tuition for students, and the closing of areas of study that do not translate immediately into profits for the corporate sector."

So when we are obsessing about global ranking systems, are we taking into account that maybe all universities need not fit into a single model of a university or abide by the same set of parameters, because they have to consider where they are located and the local cultures/societies they were set up to serve?

The writer worries about the alienation of the ideal of an university from the immediate requirements of the locality, region and nation, as it strives to compete with very differently located (in terms of geography, demography, educational ecosystems) universities worldwide.  As he says, and we quote, "For instance, if a university was set up to provide greater access to higher education for a particular region and begins to shift its emphasis towards internationalisation and research (two key parameters in rankings), then does it serve its immediate populace better through quality classroom teaching? Would it then result in an alienation of our higher education institutions from our ecosystems because we are trying to fit into a global one?"

Also while we mourn the absence of adequate research in academia, is there enough emphasis on teaching to begin with?

The piece cites a study published in March 2018 that found the following, "A total of 24 ranking systems were identified and 13 eligible ranking systems were evaluated. Six of the 13 rankings are 100% focused on research performance. For those reporting weighting, 76% of the total ranks are attributed to research indicators, with 24% attributed to academic or teaching quality. Seven systems rely on reputation surveys and/or faculty and alumni awards."

As the writer explains, the weightage provided for research in most ranking mechanisms has resulted in the massification of publication. We quote, "India is finally an academic capital… for predatory journals. Seeking to boost rankings, universities emphasise – and perhaps fund research rather than teaching. Weird results have also been reported – such as attempts to inflate citation (20% weightage in QS) through the unethical practice of excess self-citations – in the academic debate on rankings. Eventually, unless teaching becomes central to evaluative and ranking processes, the basic work of most universities in India – teaching – will collapse if it hasn’t already. Teachers preparing for classes from Wikipedia (the chosen source for several colleagues in English is Spark Notes) is now a common feature, since student feedback on teaching quality is not factored into rankings or even for teacher-evaluation. When ‘publish or perish’ becomes the motto, we could perhaps ask if we publish perishable materials."

Also, asks the piece if higher education institutions that are now preoccupied with internationalisation of parameters that entail the development of programmes to attract foreign students, can also ensure that their syllabi or pedagogies are upgraded for Indian students. As he says, "Nothing stops an institution from boosting its quality of teaching and research such that it impacts positively on the students’ futures."

His final take? "Standards need not come from, or result in, standardisation. To adopt world-class standards within any domain of knowledge does not necessarily entail fitting into a global ranking mechanism. Updating and upgrading teaching materials, pedagogy and testing mechanisms, even research within the funding possibilities offered, can still be world class. Humanities and social sciences, deeply defensive in all evaluative mechanisms, are surely not quantifiable by the same indices (impact factor, H-index, etc.) but that does not ever mean that we cannot publish in the world’s top-ranked journals."

And he also advises that we raise standards to global levels to attract high-paying international students, which in turn will fund the ‘regular’ programmes of an institution – programmes that are running aground for lack of state-provided funds.

The problem of plagiarism

Gayathri Vaidyanathan wrote on Nature – arguably the most influential and prestigious journal in the world – about an issue that has bogged down Indian academia for some time. The one that has to deal with besmirching plagiarism. Her report is about how Indian scientists are criticising a government proposal to pay graduate students who publish in select journals. Their fear is that it could degrade the quality of research and lead to an increase in scientific misconduct, by incentivizing publishing rather than good science.

We quote, "Under the proposal by a central government committee, PhD students who publish in “reputed” international journals would receive a one-time payment of Rs 50,000 (about $700), while students who publish in select domestic journals would earn Rs 20,000. The cash bonuses for publishing are more than a typical graduate student's monthly stipend. The committee says their recommendations are designed to improve the value and quality of doctoral research. Various pay-to-publish schemes have been reported in other countries, such as China, South Korea and South Africa. Indian government has yet to accept the proposal, but academics there say evidence suggests these schemes do not improve research quality. Some researchers want the government to fund more research and permanent jobs, and reduce the funding uncertainty in existing programmes, before introducing cash bonuses for publications."

In 2014, says the piece, it was reported that Indian papers were cited much less frequently than papers from China or the US.

The role of University Grants Commission (UGC), India’s higher-education regulatory and funding agency, has been questioned too in this respect and as the piece says, UGC places considerable weight on the number of research publications, and so it, too, has created perverse incentives for scientists to publish a large number of low-value papers.

No wonder then, says the piece, that papers by Indian scientists are retracted at about twice the rate of papers from the US, according to an analysis using data from Retraction Watch, a blog that tracks academic misconduct.

The piece advocates and we repeat once again that there must be more government funding of PhD research and number of permanent positions for scientists in state-funded colleges must be increased before launching schemes to incentivize research papers.

Addressing plagiarism with strict measures

In September 2018, Pushkar, director of The International Centre Goa (ICG), Dona Paula wrote a piece about The University Grants Commission's (UGC)  approval of the UGC (Promotion of Academic Integrity and Prevention of Plagiarism in Higher Educational Institutions) Regulations, 2018. These regulations were/are dedicated to addressing plagiarism by students, researchers and faculty at India’s universities and colleges.

Plagiarism is, as he puts it, along with publishing in fake journals and fabrication and falsification of research, among the major offences committed by academics worldwide. Other lesser known, though common, offences include the practice of adding an author’s name to a paper when he/she has not contributed to the research, not acknowledging conflicts of interest and general sloppiness in conducting research.

So what is UGC doing to curb such tendencies in India?

He says, "Slowly, the government is taking steps to address research fraud. The latest UGC regulations pertaining to plagiarism are an example of the government’s intent to control research fraud. But it is important to understand that anti-plagiarism measures by themselves only attack one pillar of research fraud and must be combined with attacks on at least two others: fake journals and fabrication/falsification of research. It is also necessary to admit that the immediate impact of these anti-plagiarism measures will be minimal."

He points out that though research performance of India’s universities and other academic institutions has improved, it is overall still dismal. There are many reasons for this research deficit, of which inadequate funding is an important one but not the only factor. We quote again, "Indian academic institutions underperform in research because most universities have traditionally emphasised teaching over research. Indeed, research has been close to the bottom in terms of institutional priorities. However, with the growing popularity of world university rankings in which India’s universities perform poorly because of low research output, the government started to take notice and take measures to address the deficit."

We know, that this take is different from the one we presented before on the primacy that teaching must take but this too is a perspective that needs to be addressed and perhaps a good balance between teaching infrastructure and research funding can move the needle towards better institutions.

Addressing the research deficit

Pushkar says that one of the first attempts at addressing the research deficit was the introduction of the academic performance indicator (API) in 2010. The API required all faculty members at central universities and central-government funded colleges to do research and publish – in addition to teaching and administrative duties – to benefit from the Career Advancement Scheme (CAS).  We quote, "Unfortunately, most state universities and colleges also adopted the API. With the widespread application of API across all kinds of academic institutions, including undergraduate institutions that are entirely teaching-focused, faculty members were left with no choice but to publish or stagnate in their positions. These included people who lacked any basic training for research and those who were already overburdened with teaching, administrative and other responsibilities. Further, most teachers work at colleges with woeful infrastructure and where the overall academic environment is inimical to substantive research."

The result of the nearly compulsory implementation of API, says Pushkar was that many faculty members took recourse to plagiarism, publishing in fake journals or both. While for some, says the piece, plagiarising and/or publishing in fake journals was simply a short-cut to career advancement, for most it was a necessity. In both cases, as he says, they fed each other: research-deficient faculty members plagiarised and published to catch-up or get ahead of those who were carrying out genuine research, and at some point the latter realised that they would be left behind if they did not do the same things. Many started to plagiarise, publish and flourish. This gave birth to what is now a flourishing global industry of fake journals headquartered in India, says Pushkar.

We quote, "To a great extent, the current and ongoing wave of research fraud in the form of plagiarism and publishing may have started with the API, which itself was a by-product of the growing popularity of the world university rankings. The API was created to boost India’s research output and improve the rankings of its universities; instead, it gave a tremendous boost to fraudulent research. The API is soon to be revised but the improved version falls short of recognising the proper structure and complexities of India’s higher education sector and will continue to be abused."

He cites an Indian Express report that exposed the fake journals industry in India. This reportedly led to an immediate response from the government, with the higher education secretary R. Subramanyam issuing an order: “If any substandard/predatory journals are found to be in the list recommended by the vice-chancellors, that would be held personally against the vice-chancellor concerned.”

But as Pushkar says, it is a pity that neither this government nor previous ones paid much attention to reports extending over more than a decade on various kinds of academic malpractices that benefitted dishonest academics and punished honest, hard-working ones. This has direct implications for the new anti-plagiarism measures that the government has put in place. Over time, says he, a large number of academics have risen up the ranks by getting away with academic fraud and the task of restoring academic integrity is now to be placed in their hands!

We quote, "To its credit, the government has in the last couple of years tried to deal with the menace of fake journals. In mid-2016, the University Grants Commission (UGC) took up the difficult task of preparing a list of legitimate journals; faculty members would have to publish only in these journals to benefit from the API. The task has so far been done rather badly. In early 2017, the UGC released a messy first list of legitimate journals that included the names of several fake journals and excluded many legitimate journals. In May 2018, it removed the names of 4,305 titles from its list, noting that these were “of poor quality,” provided “incorrect/insufficient information” about themselves or made “false claims.” In the process of excluding fake journals, however, it also removed several legitimate journals from the list. ‘The list’ very much remains a work in progress and will be for a while."

Plagiarism in the end is symptomatic of an ailing education system that needs to become, as Pushkar puts it, "more than a leftover profession."

He says, "A simple research project involving re-examination of PhD dissertations submitted at some Indian universities, including the best ones, will almost certainly show that many of existing faculty members carried out substandard research and engaged in plagiarism and fabrication. Many of them are now heads of departments, principals, vice-chancellors and academic bureaucrats in positions of power. The clauses regarding detection, reporting and handling of plagiarism in the UGC regulations suggest one can’t be too optimistic that they will be effective. These regulations call for the creation of a Departmental Academic Integrity Panel (DAIP) consisting of the head of the department as chairman and two other members, one a senior academic from outside the department, to be nominated by the head of the institution; second, a person well versed with anti-plagiarism tools, to be nominated by the head of the department. Plagiarism cases are to be reported to the DAIP, which will also have the power “to assess the level of plagiarism and recommend penalty (or penalties) accordingly.”

Do you see the layers of paperwork this will entail? But this is not all. As the piece informs, the UGC regulations also call for the creation of an Institutional Academic Integrity Panel (IAIP) consisting of the pro-VC/dean/senior academician of the institution as chairman, and three other members, all of them nominated by the vice-chancellor/principal/director of the institution: a senior academic from the home institution; one member from outside the home institution; and the third, a person well versed-with anti-plagiarism tools.

How will such ideas be implemented in reality and how effective and fast will they be in addressing a serious issue like lack of academic integrity?

As Pushkar says, "The fact is that the success of the anti-plagiarism regulations is contingent on how they are applied by the people who run India’s universities, from vice-chancellors down to faculty members. There are all kinds of structural obstacles to making the anti-plagiarism regulations work effectively. They will be successful if over time, Indian universities, especially research and teaching-cum-research institutions, open themselves up to hiring faculty on the basis of merit and with proper scrutiny. With the exception of a few institutions, this is not happening yet."

And there we are, right where we started. At the mercy of unseen powers to help us clear the weeds of apathy before we can start planting new seeds in our education system. But a beginning, even a small one, is a good way to cleanse inertia from logjammed systems and hopefully, we will emerge from the fog that has prevented us from seeing the full potential of our intellectual capital.
First Published on Feb 20, 2019 01:36 pm
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