Sidestepping World University Rankings: The Way forward for IITs

While looking back at the article titled ‘World University Rankings…With a Pinch of Salt?’ published by Insight last year, Mr. Yusuf S. Biviji, alumnus of the 1965 batch of IIT Bombay, analyzes how best we can use that knowledge to our advantage.

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In Oct 2013, Insight 16.1 issue published an article “World University Rankings…With a Pinch of Salt?” Like all hardcore IITBians, I too get upset when IITB is ranked 294th or 233rd in the world. I know it is unfair, because these rankings compare a small juicy mango with a large tasteless pumpkin.

Pitfalls of ranking incomparables have been explained well in the Insight article, which nonetheless asserts that they are neither absolutely useless nor should they be ignored. According to the article, the IIT Council seems to be taking an active interest in understanding how we are ranked so as to work on the areas where we lack.

Comparing Older IITs

Accordingly, why not compare essential features of these rankings in comparable entities IITKgp, IITB, IITM, IITK, IITD, IITG, and IITR (older IITs) – to uncover areas where these IITs lack?

IITs, unlike MIT, Stanford, Harvard or NUS, concentrate mainly on technology and engineering. Therefore, we ought to focus on department-wise comparisons if we are to obtain any meaningful explanation for these lacunae.

Academic Reputation (40% weight in QS Ranking) is a major parameter in the QS Ranking which is a complete black box since the exact survey methodology followed by QS is not known. For the remaining parameters, I started with Mechanical Engineering departments of older IITs to find similarities and differences in academic elements like research areas, labs and faculty.

The state of our websites

While the IITB Mechanical Engineering website reports having 90 PhD students, IITD has 70. With the core faculty in IITB and IITD numbering 47 and 50 respectively, the faculty and PhD numbers are comparable. But consider this: while IITD Mechanical Engineering has filed 8 patents and has claimed 20 international collaborations from 10 countries, IITB Mechanical Engineering is silent on the same. When pointed out, my query was dismissed by a high functionary of IITB, saying “Oh, we have far too many collaborations”. Sure, I believe him; only our Mechanical Engineering website does not reflect this vital piece of information.

When I delved deeper to search for relevant and comparable information, I discovered that the Mechanical Engineering departments of all IITs suffer from this malady: insufficient and sketchy information. To compound this bewilderment, many bits of information have not been updated from as early as 2007. Possibly, this mess is all pervasive and extends to all departments in each of the IITs.

For stating a simple Student-Faculty Ratio (20% weight in QS Ranking), Insight had to go to the official sources (IIT Council website and PRO’s Office) to obtain the exact figures. Wouldn’t it be simpler to have accurate and up-to-date figures available on each of the departments’ websites?

Can we blame the ranking agencies for this neglect, when they pick up information to compile rankings from our websites without approaching us?

Student-Faculty Ratio (SFR)

Ranking agency Quancquarelli Symonds (QS) states:

“Student Faculty Ratio is, at present, the only globally comparable and available indicator that has been identified to address the stated objective of evaluating teaching quality.”

To this, Insight responds:

“Whether SFR really is the best indicator of teaching quality is up for debate, but even assuming so, we noticed potential problems with this. Even with the guidelines given by QS, the definitions of student and faculty are extremely fuzzy and are prone to possible opportunistic interpretations by the respective institutes”.

And Prof. Devang Khakkar, our Director, says,

“It is common practice for some Universities to include Post-Docs or Research Staff in the faculty count, resulting in better student-faculty ratio.”

If we examine the faculty lists of top US universities like MIT, Stanford, and Yale, in addition to Professors and Assistant Professors, Senior Lecturers and Lecturers are listed in their faculty lists. ‘Lecturers’ are common in Indian universities too, a rank below Assistant Professor. If IITs were to rename all Teaching Assistants as Lecturers, their inclusion in faculty list wouldn’t raise any eyebrows, and with a stroke of pen, IITs could bring their SFRs tumbling down. This doesn’t mean that IITs are going to rename (or convert) all Teaching Assistants to Lecturers just to lower their SFRs. But they may like to examine renaming (or converting) some of the potential Teaching Assistants to Lecturers.

Likewise, ETH Zurich is a renowned University ranking number one in continental Europe. Intriguingly, its brochure, ‘ETH Zurich at a glance’, provides some statistics for its faculty on Page 3. As professors (full-time equivalents), they have 333 (for 2000), 349 (for 2005), and 428 (for 2011).

Are we to infer that 333, 349, and 428 full-time professors were not there in ETH Zurich in 2000, 2005, and 2011?

This just shows how fuzzy definitions can topsy-turvy SFRs. So, what’s required to be done?

IITs have to rethink the nomenclature used to classify students and faculty (on their websites). Firstly, let us examine the following table.

Category B.Tech Dual Degree M.Tech PhD
Attends lectures Yes Yes Yes No
Taught by faculty Yes Yes Yes No
Assessed by faculty Yes Yes Yes No
Guided by faculty No No Yes Yes
Duration to get degree 4 years 5 years 2 years Not fixed

Comparing similarities and differences, it is apparent that the first 3 columns denote student community, whereas the last column is totally different from the rest and belongs to ’non-students’. Let IITs rechristen, therefore, all PhDs as “Research Scholars”, and not as “PhD students”. This simple step will bring down the number of students in SFR calculations and reduce the SFRs.

Other departments at IITB and IITs in general can deliberate upon following this practice uniformly everywhere, if there is a general agreement by all concerned.

Is this trickery?

No. We are only playing the game some of the mighty western universities are playing. Only we will be transparent, unlike many of them.

Employment Reputation

Next, let us examine ‘Employer Reputation’ (10% weight in QS Ranking). Here, Insight has rightly pointed out,

“…employability is the most important factor for most undergraduates.”

The fact that world famous employers like Google, GE, IBM and Intel think highly of our undergraduates during placements doesn’t seem to be considered in the QS rankings.

Employer Reputation is relevant to other stakeholders like aspiring students and potential employers too. While our Placement Office does provide aggregate statistics of the placements of students, it does not provide department-wise statistics. This segregation is essential because placement figures of, say, the Computer Science department are vastly different from some other less fortunate departments. The above stakeholders have a right to know these differences.

When we refer to employability, we shouldn’t forget those who are self-employed. IITs are encouraging and promoting entrepreneurship in a variety of ways. And this trend is increasing. Their figures should also be mentioned on the websites.

Student exchange programs within older IITs

To have a significant presence of international students (5% weight in QS Ranking) is hard for IITs because in Insight’s words, “… how relevant is the proportion of international students to an institute, which is primarily funded by taxpayers with an expectation to serve national interest?” Yet, we cannot entirely ignore diversity on our campuses with its commensurate advantages.

We can derive major benefit by extensively promoting student exchange programs within older IITs. This can be conducted on the lines of the ‘Erasmus plus’ program by deputing and inviting for one semester, say, 10% of 7th semester UG students and 2nd semester PG students to other older IITs. Think of the long-term benefits to students that such swaps could provide. These inter-IIT movements may not improve our QS Rankings, but will certainly accomplish its intrinsic rationale considerably.

Look at how Europeans handle mobility of students and faculty:

“For 27 years, Erasmus has enabled students to spend time abroad to broaden their horizons and improve their skills. The latest figures show that Erasmus is more popular than ever. As well as contributing to a sense of belonging to the European family, the skills which Erasmus promotes also help students to boost their employability and career prospects…,” said Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth.”

Our own IITBian, Hardik Mehta, who was an exchange student at NUS Singapore, describes Exchange Culture in Insight (August 2011) in one sentence,

“The number of students who go on exchange from NUS is insane.”

…and supplements it with a photograph.

To promote such scale of mobility of students, IITs will have to persuade our numerous international collaborators (present and future) to enter into bilateral ‘student exchange programs’, in a massive way. With this kind of reciprocal arrangement the host Institute (collaborator or IIT) will waive fees and will provide accommodation to the exchange student (IIT student or international student), while the concerned student (IIT student or international student) will spend on travel, food, and incidental expenses.

The best part of such bilateral understandings with our international collaborators will be that we won’t be losing out on any of the precious seats funded by our taxpayers, while reaping all the advantages of the presence of international students in our campuses (especially so if the ranking agencies visit during this period!).

Faculty exchange programs within older IITs

Likewise, to have significant presence of international faculty (5% weight in QS Ranking) is tough for IITs mainly because foreign exchange parity makes it nearly impossible to afford them. However, we can encourage faculty exchanges within older IITs by deputing and inviting, say, 10% of faculty for one or two academic year(s) with corresponding advantages.

Again, one can learn from the Europeans. Erasmus is not just an exchange scheme for students:

In 2012-2013 more than 52 600 academic and administrative staff received funding from Erasmus to teach or train abroad. The experience they gain not only benefits the individual concerned but also the quality of teaching and learning at their home institution when they return.

Revamp Websites

Therefore, our first priority should be to pack relevant and up-to-date information in our websites from which not only ranking agencies, but also our stakeholders or anyone interested can access the facts to form right opinions and make correct decisions.

This task is best performed initially by students themselves. Ideally, a team of General Secretaries of all departments of IITB should discuss and agree on the content and structure (what information and how it should be organized) of an IITB department website. Based on the team consensus, the respective websites of all departments can be structured and updated.

So, what are these essential attributes IITB should pack in its (departmental) websites? Areas of Specialization and Research, faculty and student (UG/PG/Ph D) break ups, labs and workshop details, information on technology transfers, and research & consultancy projects are some of the obvious choices.

Less apparent features are figures of international collaborations, number of patents filed and received for a specific period, number of students placed, information on students pursuing entrepreneurship routes… all department-wise.

Once we have given face-lifts to the websites of all departments at IITB, we can urge other older IITs to do likewise through their own student councils. Once that is accomplished, finding similarities and differences among older IITs will be straightforward. This in turn will help all the older IITs to uncover areas where they are lacking, and the areas in which they can justifiably take pride.

In a nutshell, we all will learn from each other, while raising our benchmark to new heights.

A caveat: At the end of the day, the students of IITB are a floating population. No matter how committed and effective these teams are in performing their tasks, in due course of time these websites will be outdated.

To keep our websites continually up-to-date and vibrant, IITs must entrust this job to a competent person initially, making a team responsible for this job eventually.

Bottom Line

IIT council recently resolved,

“… pay more attention to the rankings and concentrate on branding and marketing IITs”

while Prof Gautam Barua, the former Director of IIT Guwahati (in a lighter vein, I am sure) advocates,

“…spend heavily to aggressively market the institute among the academia and corporations in the US and Europe”.

Aggressive marketing is for those who are not the best. Without a shadow of doubt, we are the best in India and comparable to, if not better than, most of the similar Institutes in the US or in Europe.

In conclusion, decisions on student and faculty exchange programs within older IITs and with our international collaborators can be taken by the IIT Council after due deliberations. A major revamp of our websites is the need of the hour and the sooner we put our house in order, the lesser would there be a need to market ourselves – whether it be the US, or Europe.