Present global ranking of Universities problematic

By D. V. Kumar

This is that time of the year when different kinds of global ranking of universities such as THE (Times Higher Education) and QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) are announced. The QS World University rankings has just been announced. When these rankings are announced, there is elation in some Institutions/Universities and heartburn in many others (from India) which could not quite make the cut. Some of these Institutions/Universities will be keen on engaging in serious critical self-reflection and finding out ways and means of improving their rank next time.
What I wish to do here is to critique the present system of global ranking of universities. I know that this is not a popular perspective in the context of severe competition among different universities to do well both at the global and national levels. Apart from these systems of ranking being homogenising (one- size fits all ) and hegemonising (to do well at the global level, one needs to necessarily publish in journals located within the West), what I find disquieting about these systems of ranking is that they are very closely related to the ‘commoditisation of education’. Education is being seen less as inherently empowering and critical imagination-enhancing project and more as a technical and utilitarian one. It is increasingly being seen as a commodity, perhaps just like a tooth-paste or a soap. A commodity is a commodity because it has exchange value, that is, it can be exchanged for something else, most notably money. Rice produced by a farmer for his or her own use is not a commodity but when the same rice is taken to the market to be sold there, it becomes a commodity.
Advertisements help in increasing the exchange value to a considerable extent. Therefore we see a lot of money being pumped into advertisements on soaps and tooth-paste. Universities too need to ‘advertise’ their degrees and brand image. These different systems of ranking provide a very good platform for them to do so. Students get attracted to the Universities doing well in these systems of ranking and are willing to pay hefty fees. To the best of my understanding no system of ranking which exists today talks about whether students who have come to universities are able to develop critical consciousness and an ability to engage meaningfully with ideas. Perhaps what Paulo Freire (a very powerful critical thinker) said long ago about the nature of education which was being imparted is relevant here. He argued that that the basic aim of education is to ‘consientise the conscience’ of those who are receiving education, not merely fill their minds with a lot of information which they are expected to receive uncritically (what he called ‘banking concept of education’).
None of the systems of ranking, in my view, look at this aspect of education i.e. of its ability to deepen the critical consciousness of its receivers. I do understand evolving methodology for examining this is difficult but certainly worth trying for. The basic problem with the present system of ranking is that it treats education as a commodity and by doing so, it emphasises only its exchange value and ignores the use value i.e. education for engaging with exciting ideas and its empowering potential.
The other important critical aspect which is missed by the global systems of ranking is that it does not address the issue of social inclusion, that is, how representative universities are in terms of intake of students from marginalised and deprived socio-economic backgrounds and backward regions. In this respect, it needs to be recognised, that the NIRF (National Institutional Ranking Framework) done by the MHRD does better than global systems of ranking as one of its five important parameters of ranking is Outreach and Inclusivity (OI). It seeks to rank universities in terms of how representative they are by looking at the socio-economic and regional background of the students. Due weightage is also given to the adequate intake of female students and provision of sufficient facilities to the physically challenged students. This is something that is completely missing from global systems of ranking which have shown least sensitivity to the socio-economic and cultural context. If such a thing were factored into the global systems of ranking, it would not be an exaggeration to say that many universities from India would figure prominently in any global system of ranking of universities. Though the NIRF is certainly an improvement over the international systems of ranking, it too needs some correction as it does not go the whole hog in terms of expanding the range of marginalised and deprived groups of people, especially those coming from the backward regions.
Another serious problem with the global systems (whether THE or QS) of ranking is that they place inordinate emphasis on perception which is totally subjective. If our higher educational institutions were to try to improve their perception at the global level, they would perhaps have to spend considerable resources and adopt mechanisms which have nothing to do with academic aspects.
Perhaps it is time that the international agencies relooked at the whole system of ranking of universities by factoring in the role of universities in deepening of critical consciousness among the students and ensuring adequate social inclusion.

“None of the systems of ranking, in my view, look at this aspect of education i.e. of its ability to deepen the critical consciousness of its receivers. I do understand evolving methodology for examining this is difficult but certainly worth trying for.”

(D. V. Kumar is Professor of Sociology, North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong)

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