View: Do university rankings really matter?
While they provide data-points for students to make better decisions, they also act as beneficial benchmarking tools for universities.
University rankings have been the subject of much debate almost ever since they came into existence -- a debate that is renewed with each new release of the league tables.
This time, the uproar is about the recently released Times Higher Education (THE) rankings where Panjab University was ranked number one in India, and 239th globally -- several spots ahead of the celebrated Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs).
The chance occurrence has a lot of people asking whether rankings carry any credible value. And the short answer to that question is an emphatic "yes".
First, whether we like it or not, rankings -- of nearly every kind, whether they be companies, countries, automobiles or billionaires -- get noticed.
University rankings influence the choices prospective students and parents make, as also affect perceptions of prospective faculty and employers.
To say the least, the fact that university rankings get the attention that they do in the media and the fact that we as Indians beat ourselves up year after year over not having enough top-ranked universities goes to show that rankings hold considerable sway over public imagination.
Having said that, rankings don't matter to all universities equally.
In particular, they impact universities that already enjoy a considerable reputation only marginally.
For instance, it is highly unlikely that engineering students would now flock to Panjab University instead of the IITs on the basis of the THE rankings just as it is unlikely that a Harvard moving down two places or a Stanford moving up four places would significantly affect their reputation or their admissions.
On the other hand, rankings hold a disproportionately high impact for new or relatively unknown universities.
Talking from personal experience, rankings played a crucial role in the success of Indian School of Business (ISB).
In 2008, ISB became the youngest school ever to break into the Top 20 in the Financial Times (FT) Global MBA rankings, and has been among the Top 20 ever since (except in 2013).
As a new business school, getting into the rankings -- especially that high -- helped ISB get noticed, get counted in the league of the IIMs, and be recognised as the best private b-school.
Similarly, the recent THE ranking does a great deal for the brand value of Panjab University, although it probably doesn't diminish in any way the reputation IITs enjoy.
Evidently, rankings matter -- perhaps not as much to reputed institutions but immensely to upcoming universities.
With that established, the important question is how students and institutions could and should use these tables in insightful and constructive ways.
Talking of students first, rankings provide valuable data-points for prospective students to make better-informed decisions amid a deluge of choices. However, there are three important points of which students should be mindful since they rely on these numbers.
First, rankings are only as good as the methodology used to determine them.
The importance of looking beyond the table and into how it was computed cannot be overemphasised.
To explain with an example, ISB dropped 14 places to 34 in this year's FT rankings while the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A) dropped 15.
The slide might have little to do with any significant drop in the quality of these programmes over the year, as it might with the rupee's un-arrested free-fall.
This is because "career progression of alumni" (measured in terms of salaries received pre- and post- the programme at the prevailing exchange rate) accounts for 55 per cent of the rank that FT awards.
It is, therefore, important to look closely at ranking methodologies to assess for their reliability.
Second, it is just as important to look for consistency in rankings.
For the pace at which institutions change, significant jumps year on year would be suspicious.
Inconsistencies could creep up either because of information gaps in previous years (Panjab University admits to have used consultants to provide better information to THE this year, hence its dramatic entry into the top leagues), or a change in ranking methodology.
But when neither is the reason, the credibility of the ranking itself is suspect.
Lastly, it is important to remember that ranking is only one data-point, albeit a highly useful one particularly when little other information is available about a school.
However, measuring long-standing established schools solely on the basis of rankings can be misleading.
For instance, in what defy common perception, there have been times when the ISB was ranked higher than Kellogg, its partner institution and clearly a top institution of long-standing high reputation -- a result of quirks in data, or erratic methodology.
To go by rankings alone in such cases is, needless to say, problematic.
Coming to universities, irrespective of what is measured and the underlying methodology, rankings act as hugely beneficial benchmarking tools. Rankings help universities compare themselves with peers across a range of parameters to which they otherwise would not have access.
THE institutions can use these tables to identify areas and strategies for improvement as well as to set themselves apart from the crowd.
Given that only 161 universities and 4,371 colleges of our 33,000-odd degree-granting institutions are National Assessment and Accreditation Council accredited, rankings become all the more significant.
Given the strong case for the utility of rankings for students and institutions alike, it is unfortunate that there is no credible home-grown domestic ranking system for institutions of higher education in India.
Currently, international rankings continue to dominate our psyche. While their methodologies are all well-thought through, their one-size-fits-all approach of using the same parameters for India leads to erratic results of little value to our students.
The few that exist domestically are published by popular media, are largely perception-based and mired in controversies and conflicts of interest.
Yet, for India, which is creating new universities and institutions by the day, where reliable accreditation and rankings are yet to take root, there is merit to rankings.
Rankings are here to stay and it is about time that we developed a credible and trustworthy home-grown ranking system with a methodology and parameters that are relevant and helpful to the millions of our students that enter the university system each year.
The authors Pramath Raj Sinha and Mrudula N S are with 9.9 Media. Sinha is the Founding Dean of ISB and a Founder and Trustee of Ashoka University while Mrudula is an engineer from IIT Madras and a student of the Young India Fellowship Programme.
Image: For representational purposes only
Photographs: Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters