Search This Blog

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A 5-year plan to get into top 100 QS Ranks

I know a lot of my readers would like to argue that rankings are arbitrary, and one should ignore them. I respect their views, but still would like to suggest a plausible roadmap for the Indian universities in the top 300 or so ranks (basically the old 5 IITs) to get closer to 100th rank in about 5-years time. Be warned that the steps that I suggest may not be in the realm of improving teaching and research substantially, but none of them would hurt the cause of quality, and many will actually improve it. Also, I am focusing on IITs for two reasons. One, I am more familiar with the playground. And two, they are already in the top 300 odd positions in the QS ranking. But, of course, the kind of things I am suggesting, they are applicable more widely.

Just to put challenge in a perspective, let me point out that the total expenditure by an IIT in a year (including non-plan, plan, and R&D) is about Rs. 5 lakhs per student, while for the top ranked MIT, it is over Rs. 1 crore per student, and while there may be less costly way to reach the top, it is obvious that the society will have to make a huge investment to get even close to top.

I start by observing that if we look at the best performance amongst the five IITs on all the six parameters that QS rankings measure (IITB on Academic Reputation, Employer Reputation, and International Faculty, IITD on Faculty-Student ratio and International Students, and IITK on Citations per faculty), and combine these best performances into a composite score, such a hypothetical entity would already be at a rank of about 180. This shows that the current financial, administrative, and other constraints cannot stop an IIT from being in the top 200 (and indeed IIT Bombay was in top 200 just two years ago).

In fact, I think that there are inefficiencies of the system, which if removed, we can further improve our performance in QS Rankings (and this article suggests some steps in that direction). So I believe that a rank of 150 is quite possible within the current financial constraints of the Government of India. If we can have some improved funding both from government and non-government sources (including alumni), and have greater autonomy, etc., getting close to 100th rank should be possible. To climb up beyond 100 would require substantial financial inputs, but that call can be taken by the society after we improve to near 150 ranks.

First thing to note is that all our institutions have a very poor faculty-student ratio. All 5 IITs have a score between 28 and 35 (out of a maximum 100). This was not always the case. In fact, we used to have an excellent faculty-student ratio till 20 years ago, and we had a not so bad ratio till 2008, when the Government decided that we had to increase our student strength by 54% within 3 years. While the student strength had to go up by 54% within 3 years, it is impossible (and even undesirable, if I may add) to increase faculty by 54% within 3 years. To make matters worse for the existing universities, the Government has also set up a large number of new IITs, NITs, IISERs, Central universities, and so on. So the competition for quality faculty became intense, and we have grown at a much more modest pace. But the good news is that the student strength has mostly stabilized, and most IITs continue to grow in faculty size. We need to be far more aggressive than what I have seen so far. I am speaking mostly from IIT Kanpur experience, but what I hear from other IITs, there is a definite scope for improvement in how we keep in touch with PhD students and post-docs, how we respond to queries regarding faculty applications, how we treat them when they come for visits, formal selections, what kind of help is provided when they decide to accept our offers, and so on. If we can increase our faculty student ratio by 15 to 20 percent over the next 3-4 years, we improve our rank by about 50 places just on this count, and IITs have sufficient budget and autonomy to do this. Perhaps setting up of more chairs by well wishers of these institutes will help. A bit more money as research initiation grant will help. Some more support for Professional Development (the current number of Rs. 1 lakh per year is very low) will help. So money will help, but we don't need a coal block allocation to improve ranks by 50 places. And this is something that we should do anyway, not just for ranking.

One specific suggestion for this is to look at people working in industry, who want to move to academics for 2-5 years. What I have seen in academic world is that we have the same parameters for hiring a fresh PhD and for hiring an industry person with 25 years of experience. I do not wish to dilute the standards, and I do not wish to suggest that someone be hired just because someone is coming from industry. But I look at the two faculty candidates differently. When we are considering a fresh PhD, we are looking at a person who can potentially be with us for 35-40 years. If we made a mistake in recruitment, and this person does not perform well, it will turn out to be a huge mistake by the department and the institute. Moreover, we do not know how this fresh PhD will build his research and other academic activities when s/he starts working independently. However, when we look at a 55 year old for a fixed tenure contractual appointment, we have a fairly reasonable idea of what this person is likely to do in those years, and if the person performs poorly, it is a loss for a much smaller duration. Therefore, in case of a fresh PhD, if we are in doubt, we don't offer, but in case of a senior person, if we are in doubt, we could take the chance and make that offer.

There are also examples when a faculty member from a decent institute (but, for the sake of argument, a lower-ranked institute) wants to spend a semester at an IIT, while being on leave from his institute. Many of us would like to have the same sieve applied to such an application. For a short term faculty like this, I would only look at whether there is some benefit to us and whether there is some benefit to that faculty member and his institute, when he goes back. So if such a person is a good teacher, but not a great researcher, I would be happy to invite him to offer a course, with the hope that he will also interact with some of our faculty members, and improve his research as well. So our teaching load goes down, our QS ranking goes higher, and we have helped another institute in growing up. Again, I am not suggesting that we recruit anyone and everyone for a semester, just to show higher numbers of faculty in QS information sheet. I am only suggesting that we look at specific benefits to us instead of comparing the applicant with an applicant for a permanent faculty position.

To put in perspective the growth requirement of faculty, we need a net increase of ONE faculty in each department at these IITs for 4-5 years to improve ranking by more than 50 places. Given that we lose on an average one faculty per department to retirements and resignations, what we need to achieve is hiring (and joining) of two faculty members per department in the top few IITs. By no means, I want to portray this as a trivial task. It is a challenge, but something that can be achieved with sustained efforts, planning, strategy and leadership.

The next aspect of QS ranking where we perform miserably is the internationalization of our faculty and students. The best IIT (Bombay) in this respect has received 0.2 marks out of 10.

First the students. Let us understand how IITs admit foreign students to its under-graduate programs. Everyone has to give JEE. The foreign nationals are given admission to a program in an IIT where an Indian student in unreserved category with that rank could have got admission. So the foreign nationals have to compete with Indian students in unreserved category. (Admission to foreign students are not counted towards the number of seats available for Indian nationals. These are extra admissions.) This implies that in the entire IIT system, one would have no more than 5 foreign nationals, and these too would normally be those whose accident of birth took place in US, when their Indian parents were working there, but have since settled back in India. They have gone through the same school system, the same coaching, and gone through the same JEE. Culturally, they are as Indian as any other student, and they don't bring the advantage of exposing the classmates to a different culture, which will broaden the horizons of other students. These few students do not even bring the advantage of higher revenue. First it is just one student in a batch of 1000. And too, even he requests that he be allowed to pay "Indian" tuition, which is generally accepted.

But we could do admissions differently. What if we admit all foreign students who get marks above the cutoff marks in JEE, and for the purpose of seat allocation, we become more liberal. If we do this, we may be able to admit not 1 out of 1000, but perhaps 10 out of 1000, some of them with genuinely different cultural background, thereby bringing diversity to the classroom, all of them paying full tuition, and allowing us to climb the QS rankings by a few notches.

Other things we could do is to be liberal with our students going out for a semester to foreign universities (at least those who can afford), and pro-actively attract foreign students to spend a semester on our campuses. In particular, our MBA programs could have agreements with some good foreign MBA programs for such student exchanges. This improves education of our students, and our QS rankings go up further. The only thing we need to enable this are somewhat better living conditions than our typical hostels. There is enough interest in foreign students to experience India.

Similarly, can we not attract foreign students to our MTech and PhD programs. The impediment to attracting foreign students is really our attitude. There is a belief in the academic community that it is not our job to attract students. We must remain aloof and pure, and only consider applications from those who apply on their own. May be we need to hire a marketing guy in our institutes. (It used to be our belief that attracting faculty is not our job. But that has changed in the last decade or two. Hopefully, we will soon start believing that attracting students is also our job.)

Next, attracting international faculty. If we were to believe our bosses, the problem is that of the government. They don't allow permanent jobs to foreign nationals, only a 5-year contracts. And that is the only reason why foreign faculty is not queuing up to take positions in IITs. Frankly, that is nonsense. Not many foreign nationals are interested in life long jobs in India. In fact, most of them are interested in spending brief periods of time in India, from a semester to a couple of years. Again, most of us don't see much value accruing to us if a foreigner spends a semester in our department. We suspect that s/he is only interested in tourism and would do little research and in most cases this won't lead to long term collaborations. But why can't we invite them with just the expectation that they will perform as much as any of us do. After all, we are only paying them as much salary as we ourselves get (while he probably gets much more in his home country). So, if a foreign national faculty member with a good academic/research record wants to spend a semester, will teach a course, give a few research seminars, interact with a faculty or two, and a few graduate students, but will not have any long term collaborations, isn't it just fine.

If we do all this and our international faculty could increase from around 1% today to 3-4%, and the international students can go up from 0.2% to 2%, we would have improve the diversity, the quality of education for our students, and gone up 10-20 notches in QS ranking. And again, I think these are achievable goals within the current budgets and administrative constraints.

The major part of QS ranking is the Academic Peer Review which has 40% weight in the overall marks. This is basically the perception of academicians around the world. When these academicians fill up the survey, how much do they know about us. They would typically base their views on whether they have seen research papers from our institutes, whether they have interacted with faculty, students and alumni from our institutes, whether they have visited us, or they know someone who visited us and told them stories about us. And some of them who have heard of us through the grapevine but not really know about us, may even try to find out about us from the website.

What is the impression that they will take if they visit our website. They will see hundreds of faculty members not updating their websites for months. Even the institutional part being full of obsolete information. In today's day and age, it is absolutely essential to have a great website that clearly gives the impression of the energy present on the campus. We must be present on social media. We must inform the world through facebook and twitter every exciting thing that is happening on our campuses (and there are lots of things indeed happening out here). We must have a large mailing list of academicians around the world (at least Indians and NRIs, if not many foreigners) whom we ping once in six months and let them know the fun we are having doing our academics and research, and gently suggest to them that perhaps they want to participate in that fun for a semester or two.

I see that in most of our communication, we tend to over-emphasize that we are an Institute of Technology, even though half our PhDs are from Science departments, and even though we have other vibrant programs like Economics and MBA. By emphasizing our engineering departments, we make sure that academicians from engineering disciplines know about us (and hence we do get a good rank in engineering disciplines, mostly in top 100). If we want to get close to top 100 overall, we need to make sure that academicians in sciences and other disciplines also know about us.

It may seem like I am suggesting some marketing approaches only to get higher QS ranking, with no impact on the quality. But I believe that greater visibility will lead to easier faculty recruitment, more international students, more collaborations, student exchange programs, and several other benefits that will improve the quality of research and education at our institutes. And some of these steps will also improve perceptions of the employers (which constitute another 10% weight in the ranking). And greater visibility of our research will also improve citation of our papers (which constitute another 20% weight in the ranking).

I really believe that if we do all these things, we will get close to 100th rank in the QS ranking, and if the improvements in ranking are encouraged by the government with higher funding, we can break into top 100 in the next five years.

Perhaps, government can help in the following fashion. It can decide that universities which are more likely to break into top 100 will be given extra funds to speed up the process of doing that. It can select 20-30 universities most likely to break into top 100. These can be top 5 universities in engineering/science/liberal arts/ and so on, and perhaps top 5 large universities with all these disciplines. There can be set goals and associated increase in funding. For example, for the IITs, one could say, once you break into top 300, all new faculty members will be given an extra 50 lakhs of initiation grant. Once you break into top 250, the professional development budget of each faculty goes up from 1 lakh to 3 lakhs. Once you break into top 200, each department will get a one-time grant of Rs. 10 crores for further improvements in whatever aspect they are lacking, and so on.
 (These are just examples, and not very well thought out ones at that. I am just trying to suggest a framework of encouraging certain institutes to focus on improvement in ranking. Of course, faculty members of some institutes may reject such inducements and continue to do the good work that they have been otherwise doing, without an explicit focus on rankings.)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

No Indian University in Top 100 of QS Ranking

Make that 200. The top rank goes to IIT Delhi at 212.

Let me draw up a list of reasons that I expect to hear and some proposed solutions.

QS rankings are biased. Their methodology favors China (and Korea and Japan and Brazil and everyone else).

Of course, they are biased. Haven't they heard of coaching mandis. Haven't they heard of JEE. Am I to believe that average student getting into MIT can do better in JEE than students that get into IITs. These rankings are just a plot by ISI to show India in poor light.

I think IIT Council must call for an emergency meeting to come up with a new Indian ranking system, which will be based solely on preference by JEE selected students of various universities. Any university who wants to participate in such a ranking will have to admit students only through JEE and the percentile score of 12th class board exam. If we do this, we will become the world leaders, with 19 out of top 20 universities being from India. We will make sure that there is at least one non-Indian university in the top 20, even a Pakistani university, lest others should doubt the ranking system.

We are a poor nation, and our priority is primary and secondary education.

Yeah, sure. That focus is so clearly visible in the PISA report. But I have a suggestion, and it has been inspired from an excellent paper that Prof. Mehta of IIM Ahmedabad wrote recently on Why Harvard is Number One university in the world (needless to say that QS does not agree with the title of the paper). It includes a brief history of Harvard, how it started as a government college, but government never had sufficient funds to support it. So early in Harvard's history, when the Government couldn't provide Harvard sufficient resources, it gave Harvard the right to receive the revenue of ferry services across the river Charles. So perhaps the government of India can do something similar.

Give just one coal mine to each IIT.

The main problem is that we lose marks for internationalization of our campuses. There is five percent weight for presence of foreign students, and five percent weight for presence of foreign faculty.

There are two solutions to this. We can bar Indians from going abroad for higher education. Thus, we will save billions of dollars that these people spend on education abroad. The top universities in the world will perform poorly next year on Internationalization parameter, since Indian students form a significant part of their international students.

On the other hand, we should impress upon QS ranking folks that they should not go by the nationality mentioned in the passport. A lot of students and faculty may not know who is the Vice President of India, but they certainly know the names of each and every Senator in US Congress. We should count them as India Born Foreign Students. (Just like we have the Indian Made Foreign Liquour - IMFL.)

Only universities established in a city called Cambridge are eligible for the top ranks.

MIT, Cambridge University, Harvard.
This is a simple problem to solve. In fact, this is not even a problem. British had a very short supply of names, and everything had to be named after something in England. So they first started calling my city, "Manchester of the East." But they had the foresight to see that one day all the cotton mills will be closed, and only education business (including a world class coaching mandi) will flourish. There is sufficient historical evidence that the city was to be renamed as Cambridge by British. When the order came, the local British agent could not read the poor hand-writing. So "Cam" became "Can." And to make life easy for the locals, "bridge" was translated to its Hindi word "Pul." And over the century, "Canpul" got corrupted to "Kanpur." I think we should just respect history and rename the city as Cambridge. If not Kanpur, may be we can rename Kalyanpur as Cambridge. If even that is objected to by the locals who do not understand the value of QS ranking,we can just rename the IIT as "IIT Cambridge." If we can have IIT Bombay in Mumbai, IIT Madras in Chennai, and IIT Gandhinagar in Ahmedabad, why can't we have IIT Cambridge in Kalyanpur.

While the number of research papers from Indian universities has been going up, their citation index is still low.

Serious problem. It is in our genes, I tell you. We pull each other down. You look at top 20 universities. The researchers in those universities will liberally cite each others' papers. But what do we do. We also cite papers written by researchers in those top 20 universities. We are stabbing our professional brothers and sisters in their back.

Again, where is IIT Council, when we need them most. Why can't they make it mandatory for all papers published from all Indian universities to cite at least 10 papers published by researchers from other Indian universities. The problem of low citation index will soon be history.

Concluding remarks

We only need to think out of the box. The traditional recipe for excellence invariably means hard work, accountability, planning and long term vision backed by strategy, massive amount of resources, and so on. But our leadership has shown that with innovative thinking one can achieve excellence by doing nothing. The problem of school education in the whole country can be solved simply by tweaking admission process to colleges. I have tried to follow that leadership style, and suggest ways to get into top few ranks next year without hard work, accountability, planning, vision, strategy and money.