The Times Higher Education Ranking: What does it say about the future of research in Indian Institutions?
Clearly, the volume of publications being produced is not an issue - but maybe the diminishing resources granted to research, and the control on freedom for critical analysis, pose enough of a problem to drown out the voices that even have a hope of making it through.
For the first time in 7 years, India does not feature in the top 300 of the 2020 World University Rankings list, compiled by Times Higher Education (THE). For the fourth year running, the University of Oxford retains the number one ranking.
Since 2012, the Indian Institute of Science (IISC) Bangalore has featured in the 251 - 300 bracket of the list. This time, however, it fell to the 301 - 350 bracket. This was attributed to a marked dip in the institution’s citation impact score. The list compilers said this meant that there was “a significant fall in its citation impact score offsetting improvements in research environment, teaching environment, and industry income”.
That being said, although the ranking of IISC has dipped, 56 Indian institutions now feature on the list, rising from 49 institutions last year. This makes India the fifth most-represented nation on the list, which covers 1396 universities over 92 countries. Behind Japan and China, India is the third most represented country in Asia. China has a total of 81 institutions featuring on the overall list, while Japan tops the representation game with 110 entries on the list.
Of the new entrants, the Indian Institute of Technology Ropar has shot to the 301-250 bracket, sharing the top spot on the list of Indian institutions with IISC. In doing so, IIT Ropar has pushed IIT Indore into third place, which falls in the 351 - 400 bracket.
What are the rankings based on?
Overall, a total of seven Indian institutions fared worse than last year, having fallen into a lower ranking band. But on the bright side, six Indian universities feature in the top 500 this year, as opposed to five in 2018 - 19. It comes as no surprise that these six institutions are IISc, IIT Ropar, IIT Indore, IIT Bombay, IIT Delhi, and IIT Kharagpur.
Apart from the citation impact score, another avenue Indian universities suffered in was in their international outlook score. To understand this better, here’s a breakdown of how the scores are calculated:
Five groups of indicators are analysed - teaching, research, citations, international outlook, and industry income. The teaching metric has 30% weightage, and looks at the learning environment, which includes 5 different parameters: a reputation survey, a staff to student ratio, a doctorate to bachelor’s ratio, a ratio that measures the doctorates awarded to academic staff, and the overall institutional income.
Secondly, the research looks at the volume, income, and reputation of the university, by surveying the reputation of the university for research excellence among its peers, the research income for academic staff, and the research productivity, measured in the number of publications published per scholar. The citation score is an indicator of research influence, which, quite simply, counts the average number of times work published at a university is cited by scholars globally. This is where India’s ranking fell. Why is this so important? Because, according to THE, “The citations help to show us how much each university is contributing to the sum of human knowledge: they tell us whose research has stood out, has been picked up and built on by other scholars and, most importantly, has been shared around the global scholarly community to expand the boundaries of our understanding, irrespective of discipline.”
The last two metrics are international outlook, which looks at the proportion of international students, international staff, and international research collaborations. This is another metric under which India suffered.
And finally, THE looks at Industry Income linked to a university, or as they put it, “A university’s ability to help industry with innovations, inventions, and consultancy.” To simplify it further, “The category suggests the extent to which businesses are willing to pay for research and a university’s ability to attract funding in the commercial marketplace – useful indicators of institutional quality.”
What is the cause of this fall?
The context of the fall in India’s ranking requires examination. Many quarters feel like the Indian Higher Education Institutions are under attack under the present government. There have been accusations that ever since the Modi government came into power, the autonomy of higher educations is under severe threat.
Under the Modi government, rather than research grants, public universities are given infrastructure loans to facilitate their growth. In July 2018, the government made a move to scrap the University Grants Commission - seeking to deliver on their 2014 campaign promise to restructure it - and proposed a Higher Education Council of India.
If the Bill to make this change is passed, all university grants will be overhauled and replaced. One point of note is that the same Bill created six “Institutions of Eminence”, one of which is a University that has not yet been set up, and is still in the pipeline. The UGC, in parallel to these measures, has also prescribed rules to increase their regulation of universities, interfering for the first time in the setting of syllabi, research programmes, and even issues of discipline.
Another regulatory issue faced by universities was the Commission’s then-newly framed regulations, issued in a Gazette notification in 2016. The regulation was made to intensify the admission process for MPhil and PhD programs by giving a criteria of 100% weightage to a viva voce for admission. Prior to this unilateral change, admission relied on a 30 per cent weightage for the viva, and 70 per cent weightage for a written exam. Students from JNU promptly protested, and, joined by the Students Federation of India, responded by filing a plea against the policy in the Delhi High Court, but it was only in 2018 that the Court issued a judgement in their favour.
An attack not only on institutions, but also on individuals
In August 2019, there was national uproar when the administration of JNU asked the esteemed professor and historian, Romila Thapar, to send them her resume and credentials. The administration made this demand on the basis of a change in the guidelines for the grant of Professor Emerita status to its retired professors.
Just a few days ago, a DU Professor - Dr Hany Babu - had his home raided by the police, on allegations of links to Maoist groups. This raised a nationwide conversation about a systemic attack against individuals in academia who are openly critical of the ruling regime.
These are just two recent examples of a number of signifiers that show the intolerance of the government towards subversive research and publications. At the end of the day, publications rely upon innovation - and research work will only be cited if it is truly cutting edge. The barriers set upon both individuals and institutions, stopping them from developing critical thought is bound to have an impact on the quality and relevance of research produced in the country.
Conspiracy Theory or Collective Criticism?
Despite the above mentioned issues, there is a prima facie contradiction at play. The Union Budget 2019 allocated ₹10,000 crore more to the education sector than the 2018 - 19 budget did. Of the total ₹94,853.64 crore education budget, ₹38,317.01 crore was allocated to the higher education sector. In 2018 - 19, the allocation for research and innovation was ₹350 crore, while in 2019, the allocation is ₹609 crore.
In addition to this, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has proposed a National Research Foundation, to focus on the funding and promotion of research. In her 2019 Budget speech, Sitharaman said, “The NRF will assimilate the research grants being given by various ministries independent of each other.” She went on to say, “NRF will ensure that the overall research eco-system in the country is strengthened with a focus on identified thrust areas relevant to our national priorities and towards basic science without duplication of effort and expenditure. We would work out a very progressive and research-oriented structure for NRF. The funds available with all Ministries will be integrated in NRF. This would be adequately supplemented with additional funds," she added.
This move, however, has been met with widespread scepticism - her words rang with the shadow of a “national priority”, and the threat of greater regulation of grants were ominous, to say the least. It is this very give and take - more take than give - that leads critics of the government to reject the overtures made towards the development of research.
It is interesting to note that the majority of institutions on the rankings list cater only to STEM courses. What does it say, that despite being on the forefront of critical thought, Indian universities that teach humanities and arts have not yet made it to the top 300 list?
As a research-friendly environment continues to be pushed into the dark, and in an age of tightening restrictions on higher education, we need to reflect on what the cause of a dip in our citation score bodes. Clearly, the volume of publications being produced is not an issue - but maybe the diminishing resources granted to research, and the control on freedom for critical analysis, pose enough of a problem to drown out the voices that even have a hope of making it through.