NIRF 2017 rankings reveal the flaws in the higher education system of our country

Rankings for institutes and universities across the country were released on April 3, 2017 by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), sparking a lot of debate regarding its validity and importance. Only 3,000 higher education institutes took part in the ranking this year out of over 50,000 in India, posing a question of sample size of the rankings. The ranking this year included colleges as well, but couldn’t attract many submissions (only 600 colleges participated).   

NIRF (National Institute Ranking Framework) rankings of the HRD Ministry, track 5 major parameters namely: Teaching Learning & Resources, Research and Professional Practice, Graduation Outcomes, Outreach and Inclusivity and Perception. Ranking of all the higher education institutes have been made keeping the same yardsticks in mind. But, with the scenario of higher education in the country being highly heterogeneous, would the homogenization of a common ranking work?

Take the case of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi and the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), Bangalore which are ranked second and fourth respectively on the ranking of universities released this year. While JNU had over 924 MPhil and PhD candidates in the academic year 2015-16, JNCASR, a deemed university, had only a total of 300 PhD students.. Difference between the infrastructure and amount of research work produced would be a lot more in an institute like JNU, in comparison to JNCASR.

The Ghost of Research haunted by UGC Regulation 2016

The HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar, while announcing the rankings, mentioned that the ministry would give utmost importance to research work done by higher education institutes. He also mentioned that the institutes that will perform better in the national rankings will get better funds from the centre.

Quite contrary to the announcement, the UGC Regulation 2016, delimited the number of research scholars supervised by faculty members. The Regulation made it mandatory for a professor, at any given time, to not have more than 3 M.Phil. and 8 PhD scholars. In case of Associate Professors the number is 2 (M.Phil) and 6 (PhD), while Assistant Professors can only supervise 1 M.Phil and 4 PhD scholars in any particular university. This directive from the UGC has curtailed the research seats drastically for an institute like JNU, which ranked second this year, from 924 last academic year to only 242, this year. Since research is one of the major criterion for defining the ranks of the universities, it is bound to affect the ranking of the university next year.

“A lot of students come to study in central universities like JNU because of the affordable fees and stay facilities provided. Seats in different departments of research have been massively cut down, which will not only affect the future of the students but it will certainly hamper the research output of the institute,” said Apeksha Priyadarshini, an M.Phil student of JNU.

Former PhD scholar from JNU, Spandan Bhattacharya points out that the research output of the country is already abysmally low (see graph above), and that this move will affect ‘academic life’ over time. “With already skewed number of opportunities for research in the country, this move will mean even lesser number of students getting a chance to enrol themselves for a research programme. Lesser number of students will mean lesser participation in seminar, workshops and publications, which will eventually pull down the research output of the institute,” he said.

The buck stops at the teacher-student gap

While the VC of JNU adjudged cutting of research seats to abysmally low numbers ‘justified’, it was pointed out that the university can’t go against the UGC regulation. The major reason behind the seat cut is argued to be caused due to the lopsided teacher-student ratio in the institute. Although the university has initiated the process of admitting 300 new professors/assistant professors earlier this month, it will take time to streamline the whole process and stabilize the number of research seats in the institute. “I am not sure about the time taken for filling up the posts, but the administration has not given any assistance to fill these posts by the next academic year so far,” said Priyadarshini. While there are 5,460 professors in different posts at various Institutes of National Importance (IITs and NITs), Central universities (JNU, AMU, BHU) have only 2,896. Although there is increase in the recruitment at entry level (Assistant Professor) over the years, but the same is not true with Professor and Associate Professor posts in universities across the country.

Number of PhD enrolment in Institutes of National Importance has increased from 9,432 to 25,103 in the last five years, whereas the central university has enrolled 15602 PhD students in 2015-16, which is a meagre increase from 12641 in 2011-12. The disparity is evident in state public universities as well, where only 6,000 PhD students have been added in the last five years.

Step motherly attitude of UGC towards state universities

Not only in terms of faculty and research facilities, there is also disparity in the amount of grant provided to different universities by the Union Ministry of HRD. The top brass engineering institutes like IITs and central universities get the major share of the funds released by MHRD. According to media reports published, Rs. 4,135.85 crore was spent on the 22 IITs, while Rs. 5,621.37 crores were spent on the 40 central universities for the academic year 2015-16. According to the same report, only Rs. 609 crores were spent on the 159 state universities in the country. Where only 22% of the total PhD students are from these institutes of national importance, the largest stake of 36% of PhD students are from state universities. It puts central universities and national importance institutes in a beneficial position, which eventually helps them get good ranks. Although this year NIRF rankings presented a category under which it ranked only universities, central universities get an added advantage over state universities. While 4 central universities made it to the top 10 list of universities, only two state universities made the cut this year. “I don’t see this as an attack specifically to the academic life of JNU, but it looks like a planned attack on the academia overall, across the country,” said Bhattacharya.

The approach of the central government towards University and Higher Education has always been one of indifference. During the years 2011-15, over 4,000 new colleges and 200 new universities have been given permission to operate in the country. But, in the academic year 2015-16, Ministry of HRD spent only a total of Rs 71,139 crore, which is just 0.63% of the total GDP. Although it is a raise of almost Rs 10,000 crore from the academic year 2011-12, the total expenditure in terms of GDP has not moved a bit. (Check the graph above to find out the GDP difference between other countries put in R&D).

Slide in the New IITs with research loopholes

Although, the top seven IITs, that were established in the period (1951-2001), have kept their position well in the top 10 list released by NIRF, it is the IITs that were established in the year 2008-09 and later that found it difficult to maintain their position. Anna University and Jadavpur University (two state universities), with their better performance in research, professional practices of students, quality of publications and number of published and granted patents, have beaten IIT Hyderabad in the ranking list. The premiere technology institute of Hyderabad has slipped from last year’s rank 7 to 10, this year. While the ‘Perception’ (calculated based on public perception, academic peer perception and perception of employers and research investors) score of IIT Hyderabad was 95 in the last year’s ranking, it slipped drastically to 29.72 this year. The slump is recorded in the ‘Research and Professional Practice’ category as well, which stood at 36.21 from the last year’s score of 76.83. 

IIT Hyderabad offers PhD courses in 13 major streams. Established in the year 2008, IIT Hyderabad started providing PhD programmes in the academic year 2011-12 with two fellows and reached the highest number of 64 ongoing research projects in the year 2015-16. However, the numbers slumped to 55 in 2016-17, causing the scores to come down in the ‘Research and Professional Practice’ segment by NIRF. 

IIT Gandhinagar, which was established in 2009, also witnessed a huge drop in ranking, slipping from rank 8 to 30 in a matter of one year. IIT Gandhinagar scored 14.41 in ‘Research and Professional Practice’ segment, which is a huge drop from last year’s score of 72.09. The perception score of the institute has also gone down from 96 to 27.54.

IIT Patna and Ropar (established in 2008), also slid in the new ranking to 19th and 21st position from 9th and 10th spot, last year. IIT Patna has managed to get only one patent in the last academic year. Perception score of IIT Patna and Ropar has dropped drastically to 14.35 and 7.68 respectively in this year’s ranking.