Thursday, May 26, 2011

Apostatic Alumnus? Or Pragmatic Patriot?

India's Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, whose observations and comments invariably attract controversy every now and then, opined to the press the other day that the faculty at the IITs and the IIMs and the quality of the research produced by them were not world class. (Not that the faculty were bad, mind you, just that they were not world class.) A news report from CNN IBN quotes him as saying:
"There is hardly any worthwhile research from our IITs. The faculty in the IIT[s] is not world class. It is the students in IITs who are world class. So the IITs and IIMs are excellent because of the quality of students, not because of quality of research or faculty." 
His comment was seen as heresy, given that he is an alumnus of IIT B and that his father was on the faculty there, and provoked an emotional outburst from several quarters (including the lead opposition party, who pounce on every opportunity to bash an incumbent Minister) but hardly evoked any cogent counter-arguments. All criticisms so far either question his moral right to say what he did or accuse him of ignorance and prejudice, and stoutly assert the generally accepted view (in India) that these venerable institutions are indeed among the finest in the world. Nobody has yet stepped forward with specific evidence that the faculty at these institutions and the research produced by them are indeed world class, in direct contradiction to Jairam Ramesh's statement.

Jairam Ramesh's view on this matter is not very different from my own, and when I had aired this view in an earlier post, it drew as much ire (proportionately scaled down to the modest size of my audience), as is evident from some of the comments on that post. My tweet yesterday, questioning the basis for outrage against Jairam Ramesh's comment, was met with equal outrage by someone who offered as proof the fact that Bill Gates and Scott McNealy thought highly of IITians and the fact that in the US, IIM alumni competed (presumably with local managers) to head American corporations. While I have no doubt that these are indeed statements of fact, they not inconsistent with, and therefore do not challenge, the essence of Jairam Ramesh's observation -- that the students are great but not the faculty. Where is the proof that the faculty, and the research they produce, are world class, regardless of the quality of the students or other characteristics of these institutions? Is there any data out there in the public domain that can serve as a basis to substantiate either view?

I decided to investigate the subject of university rankings, focusing on what, according to global academia, might constitute a world-class institution of higher learning, and accordingly, what a list of the world's best institutions might look like. I readily found the 2010 QS World University Rankings of the top 500 institutions within a few minutes of searching. I also came across an old news report that summarized the findings of this same 2010 study from an India perspective. Depending on your inclination and your available time, feel free to download the entire report and analyze it, or to just scan through the rediff news summary. If, however, you are keen on drilling down to the bottom of this issue and so need far more details than what the downloaded pdf ofers, then visit the home page of QS World University Rankings. The home page also explains in detail the methodology underlying the rankings including the parameters for scoring and their respective weights, the process of conducting academic peer reviews and employer assessments and the logic behind the scores.

In the overall "2010 World University Rankings", no Indian institution figures in the top 20 or the top 50 or the top 100 or even the top 150 -- not one single Indian institution of any kind (i.e., not even non-IITs/ IIMs). IIT B, ranked at 187, just about makes it to the top 200. It is interesting to note that among other parameters, 'citations per faculty' (a research/ faculty -linked indicator, under which IIT B ranks 291) and 'employer reputation' (a student-linked indicator, under which IIT B ranks 50) both contribute to the overall rankings, and that our Indian Institutes, generally speaking, rank highly on the latter and rather poorly on the former. This is consistent with Jairam Ramesh's claim. Since I didn't see the IIMs anywhere, I probed further and found a separate niche ranking for "Social Sciences & Management" where JNU and University of Delhi appear in the 125+ range and IIT D, University of Calcutta and IIM A in the 280-300 range (with IIM A just about making it into the list, tying for the 299th position). I also found a separate niche ranking for "Engineering & Technology" in which IIT B manages to make the top 50, coming in at rank 47. Another 4 IITs follow in the 51-100 range, giving India a total of 5 IITs within the top 100 Engineering & Technology universities of the world. These domain-specific rankings certainly paint a better picture of the IITs than the overall rankings, though they don't do much for the IIMs. The 2011 Asian University Rankings are not so kind to the Indian Institutes either -- nothing within the top 10 or even top 20. However, the five "legacy" IITs (i.e., not the more recently established ones) are all within the top 50 and this may be the source of some consolation to the less ambitious. (Shouldn't world-class institutions be within the top 10 or at least top 20 of their own geographical region, if not the world?)

A claim to world class, I would imagine, could best be substantiated if a critical mass of the IITs and IIMs (e.g., the "legacy" institutes: 5 old IITs and 3 old IIMs) were each within the top 100 of the overall world rankings, and each within the top 50 of their world niche/ domain category ("Engineering & Technology" and "Social Sciences & Management" respectively) and further, also well within the top 20 of the overall Asian rankings. These are just numbers I plucked from the air, and you may have your own way of setting the bar for the Indian Institutes of Technology/ Management to be called world class. Either way, the QS rankings for 2010/2011 do not establish either the IITs or the IIMs as world-class institutes. And QS seems to be the only acknowledged brand for ranking universities across the world.

Aggrieved faculty members of the IITs and IIMs and angry alumni (whose wrath, I think, is directed more at the perceived insult to their teachers than to the perceived falsification of facts, if any) would do well to calm down and analyze the hard data freely available to all, instead of being in denial and adopting the proverbial ostrich-like approach. I have this short and simple message for them:

Questioning the validity of the QS rankings or their relevance to the Indian higher education system is not a constructive approach, it is in fact futile and self-serving. It would be useful to understand how the academic world today defines "world class" and to then introspect as to what your institution needs to do to get there, assuming you consider this a priority. If you love your alma mater and your country, then recognize the problems faced by them and look for solutions, rather than question the problems themselves. The first step is to accept reality. But in order to do this, you need to pull your collective head out of your collective ... er ... um ... I mean .. out of the sand, instead of burying it deeper still. (Yes, I'd alluded to ostriches, so sand would be more appropriate.)

Post Script - May 27, 2011

Woke up this morning to find news reports that the Union HRD Minister (responsible for education) Kapil Sibal (whose initial reaction was to say something to the effect that Jairam Ramesh, being an IIT alumnus probably has better insights) had "demolished" Jairam Ramesh's argument, based on "evidence, not perception".

The evidence he offers is in the form of the claim that "IITs rank among the top 50 in the global index, with IIT-Bombay placed at No 21, IIT-Delhi at 24, IIT-Kanpur at 37 and IIT-Madras at 39." I searched extensively for this global index but couldn't find it, and if you do, I'd be much obliged if you could provide a link below in the comments section. For the sake of completion, I thought I would also add other ranking frameworks I found instead:
1. Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU): The wikipedia page presents a table of the top 100 universities in the world ranked over the last 8 years by the ARWU methodology, and states that "If a university is not listed in this table, it did not rank in the top 100 in any of the eight years tabulated." India doesn't figure anywhere in this list.
2. Times Higher Education (THE) World Universities Rankings: THE presents the top 200 ranked by their methodology, in which no Indian Institute (of anything) appears, and also the top universities ranked by reputation (based exclusively on their reputation for teaching and research) where the Indian Institute of Science appears in the 90-100 range, but no mention of any of the IITs or IIMs.
3. Other ranking systems such as webometrics and 4icu that rank world universities based on their web presence and search engine results. Clearly, not relevant criteria apropos of this discussion.

On the subject of research, Kapil Sibal defends the paucity of research, arguing that "the focus of IITs at least for the first 50-odd years was to provide technically trained manpower for the country's needs and that research had not been top priority." Wonder how he feels about that fact that the bulk of that technically trained manpower migrates to the US immediately after graduation.

Kapil Sibal goes on to argue that that 25% of the IIT faculty are IIT alumni, and since by definition IIT students are world class, the faculty is world class too. You don't really need me to point out the fallacy in this logic, but just in case you do, I have three points for Kabil Sibal to consider: (1) Great students do not necessarily make great teachers (2) Even if they do, what about the remaining 75%? (3) How many of those 25% took to teaching as their first choice of career?

Our Minister responsible for education, astute politician that he is, was clearly engaged in damage control, as a reaction to the flak the Government must have received from all the enraged "ostriches". This is indeed a sad day for the Indian education system!

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