Two days ago, I learnt that JNU is a better educational institution than IIT Kanpur, and I am terribly confused since then. What does this statement mean. Does it mean they produce better economists than the quality of electrical engineers we produce. How do you really compare two fine institutions as different from each other as JNU and IITK are, with the only common agenda being excellence.
In fact, even within the same category and very similar institutions with same governance, ownership, kind of programs, shared admission process and all that, what does it mean to say one is better than the other. IIT Madras is obviously a great institution, but so is IIT Bombay. For three years in a row, some people sitting near Delhi have declared (based on some data of course) that IIT Madras is a better engineering college than IIT Bombay.
What is the implication of this. Who will use this information. If we consider the set of students who could possibly get admission to any under-graduate program in any IIT, and this set is very small (perhaps, statistically insignificant, and that is why they don't count), only about 50 students, how many of them have taken admission in IIT Madras in the last three years. Very close to zero. Is this ranking not relevant to 12th class students and their parents. Or is it that they aren't aware of the ranking. After all, releasing the ranking just days before JEE would mean that they didn't get to read about them in the newspapers.
If this information is not supposed to be used by 12th class students, who is it for. Is it for students looking for admission to MTech/PhD programs. I am not sure if many of them would seek admission based on this ranking. Is it for PhDs and post-docs seeking academic positions. Is it for companies to figure out where to recruit, or where to do collaborative projects.
Who actually makes use of this information? The answer appears to be, None. It may very subtly over a long period of time change some preferences of some people, but has no real impact on any decision making. Even NIRF website is silent about the purpose and potential use of these rankings. They justify everything they do by saying that MHRD approved it and a core committee took all the decisions, but what was the rationale of MHRD or the core committee isn't known to us.
Why should then academic institutions take these rankings seriously. Well, because, the government wants them to take it seriously. Anything that the government starts, it wants to ensure that it succeeds irrespective of any intrinsic merit of the idea. So, they have declared that rankings will be used for a variety of goodies (even though we don't understand why is JNU better than IITK). They are already using it for graded autonomy. If you are ranked higher, you will get more freedom from UGC. You become eligible to apply for Institute of Eminence status. They are also threatening to link budget to these rankings. And the last part is a huge problem.
I have already written in the previous two years about the problems with NIRF ranking. Some of the issues have been taken care of, but many of them have not been. Let me point a few issues here.
In the period 2006-2008, IIT Kanpur had the misfortune of seeing about 8 suicides. Many experts in local media told us that one of the factors for stress in the student body (even though most suicides had very little to do with academics) was that there was huge peer pressure to graduate in time (in 4 years for BTech), and those who fail even a couple of courses then get stressed merely by assuming that they may have to stay back for an extra semester. We have worked very hard to introduce a lot of flexibility in our curriculum which encourages students to stay for an extra semester or two for either an extra degree or to do double major, or just take a break and try entrepreneurship or even a job in the middle of their programs. As a result, only about 60% of the students have been choosing to graduate in 4 years, and those who are forced to spend an extra semester because of failures don't feel as if a disaster has struck them. Any academician would agree that what we have achieved in the last decade is remarkable. But unfortunately, NIRF disagrees. Since only 60% of our UG students graduate in time, we lose several points in the ranking. If we start taking admissions in different programs, including some 5-year programs and force people to remain in those programs (as we used to do earlier, and as most IITs still do), our ranking would improve.
Also, if you can fill up your seats by hook or by crook, your rankings improve. Since the graduation rates are counted not from the number of students who join a college, but the number of students who could have joined the college. So, if a college declares that they have 600 seats, and take 400 admissions. If 360 students graduate in time, the graduation rate will not be 90% (360/400) but only 60% (360/600). Now, there are two ways to fill your capacity. If you have a capacity of 400, you can based on historically joining rates, artificially declare your capacity as 600 (so you make 600 offers) and somewhere around 400 would join. And you don't admit students after the semester starts. On the other hand, if you believe that your teachers are bad, and missing classes wouldn't really impact learning, you would announce 400 seats, and will keep having waiting list and several rounds of admissions till late into the semester. The first method is far superior in that it allows people to get admission quickly, less stress, no missing of classes, and so on. But NIRF would force you to adopt the second method.
Now, if these rankings are to be used for funding decisions in near future, institutions will be forced to do things which improve their ranking. And it makes sense. If Government (and NIRF) believes that certain things are indicative of higher quality, they must allow all institutions to follow those things. So Government says that 50% women students is ideal and will give you more marks. Can IITK decide to have a 50% reservation for women. Would government handle the political pressure it will result in. Can we reserve 50% seats for out of state. (Karnataka government would hate this, as they would want a 50% reservation for locals.) So on one hand, you are arguing that certain things improve quality, and on the other hand, you don't allow me to follow them. This is so unfair.
But the good thing about people in India is that they understand that universities are complex organizations and work in multiple dimensions, and reducing all those dimensions to a linear score/rank is quite stupid, and therefore, they don't care. Each one of them have their own reasons which they think are at least more logical than NIRF ranking. As I mentioned above, almost all students will continue to favor IITB over IITM despite NIRF.
Links to other articles, addeed on 6th April, 2018:
NIRF Ranking: An Open Letter to Shri Javadekar
JNU Professor tells us why he loathes the practice of ranking universities
NIRF-2018: Urgency of a Reform in Higher Education and also NIRF
Miles to go for IISc
My blog on NIRF last year: NIRF 2017