All global rankings are fraught. Much depends on the methodology used and assumptions made. Several world rankings put out by western outfits are based on western concepts that privilege them. Thus, it is not surprising that so many western institutions dominate the global top 200 universities worldwide. To take an example, the assessment of ‘quality of research,’ the citations index used and the definition of ‘international outlook’ of staff, students and research has a pro-western bias. It is not surprising that an analysis undertaken by UK’s Times Higher Education would list 75 universities from the US and 32 from Britain in the top 200! The question could be raised why these countries are not doing as well as they used to despite having so many good institutions and how come China, Brazil and India are doing so much better with so few ‘world class’ educational institutions at the top. The question can also be asked if these lists are made to promote western, especially US and UK, institutions as destinations for bright young Asian students who are increasingly able to pay their way into high cost western institutions. Having entered all these caveats, it must still be recognized that the non-inclusion of a single Indian institution of higher learning – a university, an IIT or an IIM or other centres of higher education – in the world’s top 200 institutions is a ringing indictment of the quality of higher education in India.
The quantitative growth of higher education in India, witnessed over the past decade – with more institutions, more seats, more posts and, above all, more funding, has not translated into equal qualitative development. This despite the fact that India’s equally poorly run schooling system produces hundreds of thousands of world class pupils every year and many of them go to the best institutions worldwide and do shine. Clearly, India’s higher education needs a fix. It faces a huge leadership deficit with institutions unable to translate higher outlays into better outcomes. The deficit in leadership begins at the very top. For a prime minister who spent a part of his career as a university teacher and also chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC), Manmohan Singh has not paid enough attention to improving the quality of leadership in higher education in India. He has increased public funding for education, legislated the Right to Education and facilitated increased private investment. A bill to allow foreign investment awaits parliamentary approval. But Dr Singh has shied away from being pro-active in improving the quality of political and administrative leadership in higher education. India has been damned by a succession of ideologically oriented or plain bureaucratic leadership in higher education. Seven years of Murali Manohar Joshi were followed by five years of the late Arjun Singh. Regrettably, incumbent Kapil Sibal has not been able to reverse the damage inflicted by them on the ministry, the UGC and the institutions. For nearly a year now Mr Sibal has doubled up as telecom minister and political firefighter, further neglecting his main turf. India desperately needs better academic, administrative and political leadership in higher education.