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How Perfect Is A Ranking System?

Do rankings help to improve education standards? Experts take a look at the significance of the process.
In a world of struggle, academics certainly form no exception. Since the 1990s, higher education’s disputed territory has been the top spots in rankings. And India is also part of the trend. India Today’s College Ranking, the country’s first and most well-known magazine ranking, has been around since 1997. “And I like to believe we have changed Indian higher education for the better,” Raj Chengappa of India Today says. “Since they are being ranked, institutions have improved the quality of their education. And they do a better job presenting themselves to outsiders now.”
But does the ranking system encourage genuine improvement or is it just more crafty advertising? Because of issues of feasibility and cost, only 30 per cent of total weight is allotted to factual data such as admission procedure details, student enrolment, number of seats available, cut-off percentage in examinations, faculty strength, infrastructure and student placement. The other 70 per cent is peer review. “But peer surveys are often based on impressions, perhaps formed a long time ago. A reviewer might not even have visited the institutions concerned in the recent past. And even if he had, he would not have made a detailed study,” says education expert B.S. Warrier. “Moreover, a professor may have friends working in the institutions that are being assessed. Peer review can be useful, yet its significance should be limited,” he adds.
Full-time job
Perhaps surprisingly, M.S Ananth, the director of IIT-Madras, a consistent high-flyer in all rankings, seems to agree. “Assessing colleges and universities is a full-time job. You cannot do this so easily,” says Prof. Ananth.
Mr. Chengappa begs to differ. “Of course, no ranking system is perfect, but we have asked Nielsen, the best market research bureau in India, to come up with a solid statistical method. And the 800 reviewers are top-level academics who are familiar with colleges other than their own,” he says. “You do not make it to the top of the rankings if you do not excel.” While that probably holds true for the top performers, peer review often becomes less reliable as we move down the table.
Due to public demand, India Today extended the number of ranked institutions to 50 in the arts, science and commerce streams and 25 in the fields of engineering, medicine and law in 2007. Since a lot of the colleges in the sub-top enjoy less public prominence, their quality is harder to scrutinise. As a result, their exact spot might not necessarily be very telling.
To give these colleges their due, the approach of the National Assessment and Accreditation Council might be more fitting. The NAAC asks an institution to provide a self-study report covering curricular aspects, teaching and quality, student evaluation methods, infrastructure, school management, student support and innovative practices. Subsequently a team of peer reviewers familiar with the institution pays a visit to the campus to verify the statements made in the report. On the basis of the peer team’s recommendations, the school is finally awarded a letter grade.
Laborious
The obvious downside of the process is its laborious nature. So far, the NAAC has accredited only 140 universities and 3,492 colleges out of a respective total of 400 and 18,000. The India Today ranking faces a similar problem. “The India Today rankings are still confined to the big metros,” notes education consultant Jayaprakash Gandhi. “They should branch out to all institutions deemed to have a potential for excellence by the University Grants Commission,” he says. To their credit, the creators of the India Today rankings have been adding to their pool of institutions every year.
However, the rankings do not only suffer from geographical limitations. They also have to grapple with another dimension: time. Reputation takes a while to build up, yet once acquired, it tends to linger. Therefore the up-and-comers, waiting in the wings to claim the coveted top spots, often have to wait longer than they like. At the same time, faded glories can keep living on their reputation for some time, enticing students with their unwarranted crowns. A further tweaking of ranking methodology might alleviate a lot of the flaws.
But ideally, institutions should not be ranked at all, according to Alex Usher from the independent Educational Policy Institute. “There is no need to aggregate all your information. A good assessment tells students how any given college performs on different parameters and lets them decide what they find important in their future school.”

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