Why IITs can't stand up to competition

The institutes, which are the cream of our higher education system, rank poorly in the latest global education surveys.

 |  5-minute read |   08-09-2016
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In the past week, two of the most looked upto rankings of university rankings - Reuters Top 75: Asia's Most Innovative Universities list and QS world universities rankings - were released. Both had much disappointment in store for Indian higher education institutes, including IITs.

According to the Reuters survey, the IITs, the highest-ranking institutions in the country, occupy the 72nd spot, while of the top 20 universities, 17 are in Japan and South Korea. Similarly, in the QS world rankings, none of the much-touted IITs make it to the global top 200. Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) - Bombay (219), Madras (249), Kanpur (302), Kharagpur (313) and Roorkee (399) are the six institutions that make it to the top 400.

Why is it that even the IITs, which are the cream of our higher education system, rank so poorly in these rankings? Is it an indictment of our higher education system or does the fault lie more with the way these rankings are arrived at?

Student faculty ratio (SFR)

Student faculty ratio is an important parametre that most rankings consider. The IITs often fare poorly on this front despite having much better faculty student ratio than other Indian institutes. While some blame can be apportioned to measures taken to expand student strength and the new IITs not having requisite faculty presence, a significant reason why IITs get an abysmal score on this front is because globally universities often use vastly varying interpretations for who qualifies as faculty.

It is common practice for some universities to include post-doctoral scholars or research staff in the faculty count, resulting in better student-faculty ratios, whereas the IITs only include full-time faculty members, which leads to the corresponding ranking.

Suboptimal research culture

Research citation and output are perhaps the most ubiquitous and important parametres used in these rankings. But here again the IITs miss out due to a variety of factors - fund shortage, inadequate research infrastructure, the nature of their origin as institutes creating professionals, rather than researchers, less inclination among students towards research, et al.

Low internationalisation

Presence of international faculty and students in an institute brings greater diversity. The rankings too consider how well an institute does on this front. IITs as well as almost all other Indian institutes fare abysmally when it comes to the ranking - not one Indian institute figures even among the global top 700.

There are only 130 foreign scholars enrolled in post-graduate courses and about 100 for PhDs, against 25,000 Indian students enrolled in the same programmes. The absence of international students is as much about unwillingness as it is about inability. The IITs are too strained to meet domestic demands and, in such a scenario, opinion remains divided on how far IITs should go to incorporate foreign students.

Also, the best of global students find little reason to come to the IITs, and opt for top western universities that have a legacy to bank on and also figure higher in the rankings students rely on.

iit-embed_090816010727.jpg The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is known for innovation way more than the IITs. Photo: MIT.Edu

Insufficient collaboration with industry

Collaboration with industry influences rankings, if not as a direct parametre, then as a factor influencing research output, endowments that institutes get, faculty quality (based on sufficient interchange of industry professionals and faculty) and facilitating students to adapt to change.

In the past two decades, much progress has been made, yet, in comparison with the global standards, collaboration of higher education institutions with the industry is woeful. This is another drag for the IIT rankings.

IIT's don't give rankings their due importance IITs have, for a very long time, been indifferent or even agonistic to global rankings. Owing to their oncerN's with primary aims as well as their dominance in India, which lessen the need to pay heed to the rankings, IITs get ranks that are not reflective of their true standards.

IITs often miss submissions of data, and the ranking body then sources it from less favourable front. Similarly, any institute can send names of people associated with it to help QS send questionnaires to the right people. Foreign institutes send 400-500 names; IIT Kanpur, for instance, sent only 28 in 2013. Without adequate data, a ranking body like QS will survey less significant sources leading to the IITs losing out.

Poor endowment and funding

A major cause behind poor score on other fronts remains the inability of the IITs to spend big. This is primarily due to the limited endowments and funding they receive. The seemingly mammoth endowments and funding all the IITs receive it pales in comparison to Harvard's 37.6 billion dollars. Many factors explain why the IITs fare poorly compared to their foreign counterparts - the legacy of not keeping alumni sufficiently involved, low fees, less income from research and their location in a nation with low per capita income - being the most prominent.

Slow adaptation to change, their confinement to excellence in technology (while the best across the globe are multi-disciplinary in their outlook) and centralised and bureaucratic control only further impedes excellence.

For better or for worse, IITs are seen as a benchmark in India's higher education system. Their dismal performance in the global rankings, therefore, highlights the long distance our education system must cover before India can become a leading knowledge-driven economy.

Also read: IIT fee hike is a horrible, disastrous idea

Also read: Setting up of 6 new IITs is a big victory for India

Writer

Apoorva Pathak Apoorva Pathak

The author is alumni, IIT Roorkee and writes on politics, economy, policy.

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