Thursday, May 30, 2013

University Rankings

I recently attended a planning commission meeting where the issue of rankings of Indian universities was discussed. One thing was apparent: many members of HRD and planning commission were serious and wanted to do something. As Professor Balaram points out, if one is serious about playing the game, it is better that one learns the rules of the game. Unfortunately, many players of this game (MHRD, faculty in institutions, policy makers etc.) seem to be oblivous to the parameters involved in the rankings and thus are unaware of the rules under which the game is played. Further, this game, unlike others, may be much harder to fix.

For an institution to rise up the rankings, individual performance and excellence should be recognized, appreciated and (maybe) rewarded at the institutional level. Currently, it is not and I do not see the situation changing soon even in premier institutions.


Anonymous said...

Dear Prof.,

I am an Indian grad student in US, and I have rarely seen a student from UK/Europe/Japan/Australia coming to US for higher studies. Note that not all universities in these countries are highly ranked. My conjecture is that rankings do not matter as long as we provide education that trains people to become independent thinkers, or help them find or create jobs. After all we do not have any real need to attract overseas talent to India. If IT boom and reverse brain drain has taught us anything, it is the fact that people would love to stay in India if quality is maintained.
Excellence in research will come from aiming towards a stable (this includes good education) and peaceful society, and not by coming up with policies to boost rankings.

Just to give you an example, I believe we already have a stable higher education system based on the IIXs. So, instead of trying to maintain the so called brand value of IIX outside India, we should just create a huge number of such institutions to train people in India. This may dilute the value of IIX, but will train people in India better. After all that is the real purpose of education, to educate people. If we look at your thread that discusses faculty jobs in India, you will see many PhDs writing that they did not get a faculty position in IIXs. This is seriously bad. What we have is a huge collection of people wishing to come back but no right place to work. Rather than being selective and trying to maintain a 'high quality', the IIXs could/should have hired all these people. I think this is much easier and more effective way to improve quality of education in India rather than going for those silly rankings.

Also, rankings do not matter as long as we have, if I may say, a 'flawed' primary education system.

iitmsriram said...

Giridhar, I would like to point out that some are trying to address this issue of rankings. IITM has been working with QS, one of the major ranking outfits; an issue with many Indian Institutions is that consistent data is not available or is not being fed to the rankings agencies. To make things difficult for these Institutional information handlers, we keep getting one tom, dick and harry local ratings requests for information. Except for 3-4, the local ratings are worthless and these info requests mainly add to the noise. But several IIX are working on this. Another issue that works to the disadvantage of most IIXs is that while being primarily tech / engg schools (narrow focus), all have departments of Humanities / Social Sciences, Management, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, so they end up description-wise as comprehensive or full fledged univs. The rankings within tech / engg is not bad, but yes, could do with a lot of improvement. However, this game has to be played with caution and not become an obsession (at least some feel this way). The extreme example is NUS where most admin functionaries are constantly rated on how much and how well they have contributed to better rankings - if the contribution is not up to par on this ground alone, they are liable to be fired. At least some of us feel that that may not be the way to go.

Ankur Kulkarni said...

"For an institution to rise up the rankings, individual performance and excellence should be recognized, appreciated and (maybe) rewarded at the institutional level. Currently, it is not and I do not see the situation changing soon even in premier institutions."

I could not agree more. The main structural problem that holds back our progress is that we do not encourage stars. We have an obsession with uniformity and a (almost childish) refusal to accept that some people are better than others. (I think those who object to this know that they have under achieved) We are afraid to look at ourselves in the mirror. Instead we keep complaining that the mirror is not perfect and the mirror that everyone else uses not suited to our faces. Or like Prof Sriram is recollecting, we get into a business of irrational scaremongering about how obsession with mirrors will ruin us (even though there is no indication that we will be obsessed with it, and that no one who has been obsessed with it has as yet has been ruined). We really deserve our rankings.

P S said...

The editorial is very aptly titled "Research Assessment: Declaring War on the Impact Factor"

The field specific nature of the JIF can lead to
extremely misleading conclu
sions, when comparing indi-
viduals and institutions using this imperfect metric. De-
spite these drawbacks, the use of JIF as a tool of research
assessment has reached epidemic proportions worldwide,
with countries like India, China and the countries of
southern Europe being among the hardest hit.

Strangely enough, if one fills out the faculty application form of IITs, they still ask for the impact factor of journals one has published in :)

iitmsriram said...

Well, I do not advocate or even intend "irrational scaremongering". Yes, we should look at ourselves in the mirror, but looking good in the mirror should not become our primary goal. If we are good, incidentally we will also look good in the mirror and that is where we should be heading. Recognizing, appreciating and rewarding excellence at the Institutional level is a key, but we are afraid of it and this has more to do with being good rather than looking good in the mirror.

Incidentally (responding to PS), IITM does not act for impact factors associated with publications though some individual departments do ask for this (and some are a bit better in that they ask for citation data which is a lot more meaningful for individuals); the applications portal asks for the researcher id / scopus id so this kind of information can be retrieved directly. We do ask that three "best" papers be uploaded along with the applications and independent experts' reading of these papers is one of the inputs used by the selection committee for shortlisting applicants.

Ankur Kulkarni said...

Prof Sriram, firstly I was careful in saying that "like Prof Sriram is *recollecting* ..." - I thought it would be unfair to attribute any of the "scaremongering" or whatever to you, since you only said `some people feel that way'.

But now coming to what you said - "Yes, we should look at ourselves in the mirror, but looking good in the mirror should not become our primary goal. If we are good, incidentally we will also look good in the mirror and that is where we should be heading."

Here I take objection. I agree that good rankings are not our goal, and becoming a good institute should be our primary goal. But ranking are important because they are the *means* of becoming a good institute. If you have good rankings, you get better students, better faculty, more visibility, more funding and more capability to achieve the heights you would like to.

Your comment suggest that you think of rankings only as the consequences of a general effort at the primary goal. But given our commitment to the primary goal, shouldn't we instead use every trick in the book to get a high ranking, because that would help in our primary goal? I don't mean to sound patronizing, but do remember that the world is not in "steady state", where effect of feedback is negligible. The earlier we sink this in, the better it is for us.

Anonymous said...

While we are on the topic of mirrors, do any faculty member (iitmsriram or others) actually think that we deserve to be even in the top 500 of all universities?
I personally think that most rankings are pointless because the difference between two consecutive universities cannot be measured on a linear scale. That said, I think that even after lobbying if we manage to break into the top 100 of all universities, we would still be miles behind an average state university in US.
I also think that this is a problem faced by most premier universities in Western Europe or other countries. The pace with with the universities are growing in US, has left almost everyone behind.
I am a product of one of the IIX's and I think that Indian research atmosphere (not education) and most of the leadership is a cruel joke on the taxpayers. Research cannot happen in a vacuum. It needs a strong ecosystem to foster. We need fundamental changes to develop this ecosystem, a very small step is opening of new IISERs or IITs so that the critical mass can increase. A big fundamental change that is needed is to accept the fact that Indian research community alongwith the creative entereprenuer class has failed to deliver. For Indian research and universities to prosper, we will need a radical change in the mentality of the administrators and also the industrialists, and they will have to stop patting each other's back. Self introspection coupled with tough decisions can only propel Indian research from Tier 3 to Tier 1.

Anonymous said...

This comment left on the original article actually summarizes my mixed feelings towards the Indian Research establishment.

"We did not win a medal, so we will lobby the Olympic Committee to award us medals out of a quota for "all those losers who have a sense of entitlement without making any effort".

Yesterday, this country's finance minister was talking about lobbying S&P for a better credit rating despite being on a downgrade watchlist, and today this. The day before yesterday, the BCCI actually forced a 2nd election to ensure its guy got elected.

When you are full of empty air, when faced with a challenge, you think of coercive solutions to every problem, instead of taking feedback constructively and rising up on the basis of undeniable merit."

Anonymous said...

"For an institution to rise up the rankings, individual performance and excellence should be recognized, appreciated and (maybe) rewarded at the institutional level. Currently, it is not and I do not see the situation changing soon even in premier institutions."

Amazing thought and captures the whole problem (and solution) nicely. What I am seeing recently is reluctance of IIX administration (Director/Dean) to control or hold accountable the mediocre faculty (especially the ones who are at the senior-most level). At the same time young talented faculty is routinely exploited and harassed and for every complaint (even if formally made) they are asked to quietly ignore and move on. While the administration is sympathetic, it is not helping. They are simply driving the young ones in the path of mediocrity.

Unless, the young faculty, is awarded and nurtured, we can only think of "spot-fixing".

Anonymous said...

Very well written, Prof. Giri.

Even in IISc, we continuously see medicority rewarded. People with poor track record in terms of publishing, graduating students etc are provided by crores of money for purchasing equipment.

Unless institutions improve their research culture and recognizing talent, we will continue to be in a downward spiral.

old IISc prof

Anonymous said...

I read a lot of comments about "senior, mediocre faculty" by "young" faculty. Please assess people's capabilities and achievements with the right perspective. These "mediocre" faculty worked in an environment during their "peak" years where there was no Internet, where the Institutes could not afford to subscribe to even the leading journals, where conference proceedings were even more scarce, where air travel within the country (forget abroad) was a luxury, where there were only about 3-4 cars on campus. These "mediocre" faculty dedicated their "peak" years building the institute you are now in, in creating the facilities you take for granted, in framing the syllabi that are well recognised. If their work is not appreciated, then none from the younger lot will put in any time for institution building, and decay will set in sooner rather than later.
Senior Mediocre Faculty

Anonymous said...

To the senior mediocre faculty:

Well, not every senior faculty is mediocre, there are plenty of good hardworking people who have done excellent work in the same conditions that you mentioned. At the same time, there are also plenty of mediocre faculty who are now senior - I hope you understand what I am trying to say. These people were mediocre when they were young and they are mediocre even now. They enjoyed the fruits of their peers in beginning and now they are doing the same with their younger colleagues. Except, many of them are now in position of power (HODs, committee chair...) and they can very well exploit the younger ones. Go around and ask the people who joined in last 1-2 years (especially among the group who are on contract), and you will see the reality.

As a young person, I had internet, but I also had 20-50 times more competition to get the same thing (B.Techh/PhD...publication). In any case, when I got internet, you also got internet. Air travel is still one in 3 years.

I wish, we had 3-4 cars even now, at least it would have saved hours spent on traffic - the day is still 24 hours only.

BTW, all the politicians today also claim how they built the country in their peaks and how do we (the young ones) owe it to them - your argument is just as good as theirs. I am sure whatever we are enjoying came from the hardworking lot and not from the mediocre ones.

I am also a product of IIX, and used to have high respect for them. In fact till joining as a faculty (young), I had respect for every senior faculty of IIX which has now reduced to a selected few.

Anonymous said...

Dear senior mediocre faculty:
We heard these before many times...."we are into institute development not into research"....
Now we have all the facilities those you said were not available in "your" times...
So why you are not working now but occupying spaces in the departments and new faculties are finding it very difficult to get a space to set up their lab.
Don't give excuse...

Anonymous said...

@ Prof. Giridhar and IITMSRIRAM,

All(MOST OF) the conversations on this blog are focussed on the problems being faced by the applicants for faculty recruitments, Ramanujan/INSPIRE Fellowships. Some stories are disheartening.

Suppose an undergraduate(interested in pursuing career in research) is reading this blog, would not he/she get discouraged and think of making career in other fields( eg Management )? In that case, how would you encourage that undegraduate for research and what advise would you give him/her if approached?

Waiting for your replies.
Your replies will be highly appreciated.

I am undergraduate in an institution where research is done.

Anonymous said...

To the anon above,

If you fear that one will give up his passion for research by reading this blog or the subsequent comments then I am sorry but you probably mean a different thing when you say "passion". The success of a selection committee is really being able to pick such a candidate up who would not give up his passion for research even in the condition mentioned in this blogs and the comments. During PhD selection interviews, I do not find one single student who does not have this "passion". I only get amazed by the speed with which passion disappears as soon as they join.

A faculty at an old IIT

Ankur Kulkarni said...

@undergrad Problems mentioned here are specific to doing research in India and cannot be translated to countries. India is not the only place to do research. In fact, for a talented researcher, the world is his oyster. If you are interested in doing research, go ahead and follow this passion. At the end of the day science is supreme - political realities such as which country the science is done in, and systemic headaches like those discussed in blog, are less important.

Anonymous said...

@A faculty at an old IIT
June 21, 2013 at 5:33 PM

What do you mean by quoted passion "passion"? Can you elaborate please?

Anonymous said...

Prof. Giri...your thoughts are correct. Many young faculty joining IISc know you through your website and blog.

Before I joined, I had presumed that IISc will reward faculty who
Publish, graduate students etc. But we consistently see medicore faculty are given crores of money for purchasing equipment.

I agree with the old IISc prof who says, "
Unless institutions improve their research culture and recognizing talent, we will continue to be in a downward spiral."

Why is talent not appreciated and we follow a democratic approach to talent?

young IISc prof