Friday, 4 November 2011

Indian varsities must improve quality of research

Times Higher Education has released the 2011-12World University Rankings on October 6. As the website explains, the rankings are the product of a cooperative effort between Times Higher Education and Thomson Reuters. The continental break-up of the top 200 universities is: Europe 86, North America 84, Asia 20, and Oceania 8, with South America and Africa one each. 

Of the 20 in Asia, the top position has been occupied by University of Tokyo, with second, third and fourth places taken respectively by University of Hong Kong, National University of Singapore and Peking University. 

Not a single institution from India is in the top 200. University of Tokyo, though top in Asia, occupies only the 30th place among the world's top 200. City University of Hong Kong, placed 20th in Asia, has a rank of 193 in the global list. It simply shows how difficult it is for even well-known universities to make it to the top globally. 

In addition to the top 200, an additional 202 universities are listed, not one by one in rank order, but in bands: 201-225, 226-250, 251-275, 276-300, 301-350 and 351-400. In the penultimate band of 301-350, we find the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. The Times HE site also provides rankings of top universities by discipline. IIT-B did not make it to the list of top 50 institutions offering engineering and technology. 

However, Asia is fairly well represented, with two each from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and Singapore. But not all of them made it to the top 50 in other subjects, and none at all in arts and humanities. Thus, best of Asia still have to work hard to achieve primacy in each and every discipline. 

The World University Rankings are based on 13 different indicators of performance classified into five categories: teaching (learning environment), research (volume, income and reputation), citations (influence of research), industry income, and international outlook pertaining to staff, students and research. The weights for the five categories are: 30% for teaching, research (30%), citations (30%), industry income (2.5%) and international outlook (7.5%). 

One can easily surmise that for institutions in the category of universities, overall score directly and indirectly depends on research quality, largely captured by citations per paper. It takes a lot of hard work plus addressing queries and concerns of two or three reputed academic referees before a paper is accepted by top journals. The reward is worth it: relatively large number of citations add to the prestige of researchers and their institutions. 

If there are a number of such academics in each discipline in a particular university, top students from all over the world compete to pursue undergraduate and graduate studies there, a virtuous circle sets in and the institution scores well on almost all dimensions that count for being in the top ranks. 

To make it to top global ranks, Indian universities need to encourage their academics to publish in top journals and score high on citations per paper with reference to such journals, as against possible citations in low ranking journals. Those in charge of higher education in India seem to ensure uniform pay for academicians across the country and across disciplines, while making provisions for rewarding research excellence that is variously defined and interpreted. A more focused approach is needed along with a transparent reward system in place to encourage publications in top 5-10 journals in each field. 

India has excellent scientists and other academicians. Consider physics, for instance. Data on citations per paper are available from the Essential Science Indicators data base of Thomson Reuters covering journal articles over the period 2000-10. 

A summary tabulation covering top 20 countries shows Switzerland at the top with 15.4 citations per paper, followed by the Netherlands [14.4] and the US [14.1], with the world average of 8.7. India, with a citation rate of 6.9, has a slightly better showing than China [5.7], but that is no consolation when one is targeting, say, a place well above the average. 

Our real resource is our billion-plus people. We deserve to have at least a dozen universities in globally reputed ranks as soon as possible. It's time now for government and academia to come up with solid plans to move the country's universities up on the ladder of excellence.

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