The trouble with rankings

Source: The Hindu 

Relevance: The article highlights the issues in the ranking system of universities

Synopsis:

Today the universities are judged based on different ranking lists, however, there are certain flaws in them. The rankings are biased against the small institutions and place excessive focus on quantity rather than quality. Hence, there is a need to redefine the idea of a university within the framework of an ever-changing social perspective.

Background:

  • The concept of university has evolved since the ancient times of Nalanda and Taxila. Earlier they were considered as a place for the communication and circulation of thought by means of personal intercourse.
  • This notion was altered with the Humboldtian principle of Germany. It called for a fusion of teaching and research in the work of the individual scholar. 
    • As per this, the objective was to advance knowledge by original and critical investigation, not just to transmit the legacy of the past or to teach skills.
    • The ‘Humboldtian’ university became a model for Europe, and subsequently for the research universities of the U.S.

Evolution of Universities in India:

  • In India, the Universities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras were established in 1857 with an aim to promote Advancement of Learning. 
  • However the immediate interest was to produce graduates to fill up the salaried positions emerging in the wake of colonial rule.
  • Today the universities are judged based on different ranking lists such as Times Higher Education and Quacquarelli Symonds. The rank is derived based on weighted averages of scores for several performance-related criteria.

Issues with Ranking:

  • First, there is no uniformity in assignment of weightage to a particular criteria. The criteria and their weights differ from one ranking organisation to another. Change in weights may produce a different list of rankings. 
  • Second, the criteria are biased against the small institutions. The criteria constitute research income from industry; ratio of international to domestic staff and students; research papers, citations; etc. Small institutions automatically trail on such issues.
  • Third, it gives very high weightage to academic peer review, where opinions of academics get importance. This means too much emphasis on perception rather than tangible outcomes.
    • Last year, seven leading IITs boycotted one such ranking, saying they are not satisfied with the transparency of the process.
  • Fourth, greater focus is placed on quantity of research rather than quality of research. Academics are expected to keep churning out papers.

Way Ahead:

  • The concept of a university should not be the same everywhere. Universities at Chicago, Harvard and Oxford might make the achievements of their students or professors as the yardstick of excellence.
    • However, there are many universities which cater to the local people as the only spectacles of higher education and the prism of enlightenment. 
    • Their importance is no less than the ‘elite’ universities. Hence, a university should be judged within its social perspective.
  • Thus, there is a need to redefine the idea of a university within the framework of an ever-changing social perspective and need.
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