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Why IISc is India's best, but lags among global peers

Samreen Ahmad & Sahil Makkar/Bengaluru/New Delhi 14 May 18 | 03:16 AM

The Indian Institute of Science (IISc), whose founding director was Nobel-winning physicist C V Raman, was placed last week at 13th position among the top universities in 42 emerging economies by UK-based Times Higher Education.

Last month IISc was ranked top among the Indian universities for the third time by the Central government.

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But the educationists are ambivalent about this feat because IISc doesn’t figure on the Times’ list of the top 250 world universities. It stands at 190 on the 2018 QS World University Rankings.

The main reason behind its low world ranking is believed to be its failure to produce Nobel laureates, which weigh high on an institute’s public perception among the world’s noted scientists and academicians.

IISc was set up in 1909 with the help of industrialist Jamsetji Tata and the Maharaja of Mysore in Bengaluru.

The institute’s reputation has only grown in the past 100 years. When the serpentine queues of cars and honks are replaced by bicycles, lush trees and cricket chirps, it is a signal that you have arrived at the sprawling campus of IISc.

The institute follows a typical American University model of tenure track, keeping faculty on its toes. Initially when a faculty member joins, he or she is put on a tenure track, which means the appointment is contractual and it remains so until a person has been assessed for a cycle of six years. 

When a teacher finishes his or her six-year term, the university sets up the process of evaluation of work both for confirming the tenure and promotion, which happens through a peer review process and not through interviews, usually carried out at the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institute of Management (IIMs).

“This injects robustness into the system and makes the faculty productive," said an IISc professor. The university also has a teacher-student ratio of one is to eight, one of the finest in the world. 

According to Times Rankings, the IISc student-teacher ratio was 8.4 and for the world’s number one University of Oxford it was 11.2. For the University of Cambridge, the second-best institution, it was 10.9.

ALSO READ: IISc, IIT Bombay among top universities in emerging economies

Then why is an institution of excellence like IISc, which was founded to create world-class scientists and engineers to help build the Indian economy, not being ranked as a world-class college?

“The kind of matrix for ranking that global frameworks follow has an inherent bias towards Ivy League colleges," said another professor at IISc.

Faculty at IISc was of the view there is a club culture when it comes to university rankings. They say foreign journals under-report the work done in the Indian context. 

“It’s often the case that our work is not understood by the editors, who mostly belong to developed nations," the person adds.

The difficulty IISc researchers face is that their work is often in the context of a developing nation. “There is always a challenge to get our work published in the best of journals because there is a contextual difference. What is publishable for them may not have any usefulness for us, and what is useful in our context may not find space in the foreign journals," says a faculty member at IISc.

The researcher blames the government, saying if it wants institutions to excel they need to be given freedom in the way top colleges in the US, the UK or Singapore are. “This way you can attract the best of talent," the researcher said.

Ranking parameters give a lot of weight to the percentage of international students but Indian universities have a different view. 

IISc teachers say there’s not enough market for foreign institutions in their own countries to run their programmes. Having international students is important for them to thrive. However, for a country like India or China, there’s a huge domestic demand, which needs to be met and that puts Indian universities at a disadvantage.

IISc alumni association head M P Ravindra says that since IISc has started benchmarking itself internationally and nationally on such parameters only recently, it is also a reason for its low global ranking.

Surendra Prasad, former director of IIT-Delhi and the man behind India’s National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF), says a culture of organising data among Indian universities has grown since they started getting ranked three years ago.

“Besides other criteria, public perceptions play an important role when institutes are ranked the world over," he says.

Brand experts say Indian institutes such as IISc and IITs need to market their brands to break into the top 100. 

“IISc has emerged as a novel brand in India but the global environment is a highly competitive. There are aggressive overseas organisations that have 24x7 public relations programmes talking about every small thing they do, including publishing journals, and showcasing their works," says brand consultant Harish Bijoor.

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