Ranking of universities across the world

Let’s face it: global rankings of universities are here to stay, despite their poor methodologies. Among them, the ranking by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University University probably deserves the award for the worst methodology. It gives a huge weight — 30 percent — to Nobel prizes won by the faculty and alumni, and a further 20 % for papers published in the journals Nature and Science.

Last year’s ranking, for example, included the University of Calcutta among those ranked between 401 and 500; IIT-Kharagpur too figured in this list, while IISc was among those with ranks between 301 and 400. The inclusion of UCalcutta was definitely because of the Nobel Prizes won by its faculty (presumably, C.V. Raman) and its alumni (Amartya Sen?). Thus, depite scoring poorly on every indicator of its current research activity — it actually scores zero for (a) publications in Nature and Science, and (b) highly cited papers — it was grouped with IIT-Kharagpur — and 98 others! — in the range 401 to 500. [1]

[Oh, just in case you are wondering, UCalcutta is out of the top 500 in this year’s ranking, while IISc and IIT-Kharagpur retain their last year’s rankings.]

Just because the Shanghai group has been in this business for the longest duration — four years! — its ranking is often quoted without paying any attention to its methodology. For example, Kaushik Basu used it in his recent BBC column:

A recent evaluation of universities and research institutes all over the world, conducted by a Shanghai university, has not a single Indian university in the world’s top 300 – China has six.

The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, comes in somewhere in the top 400 and IIT, Kharagpur, makes an appearance after that.

Now, within the US, there’s a number of rankings that (mis)lead to different conclusions about the excellence level of different institutions [2]. In India, too, all the major newsweeklies (India Today, Outlook, The Week) rank our colleges, B-schools, engineering and medical colleges — with poor (and poorly spelt out) methodologies, each pointing to a different conclusion. When the situation is so complex within a country, the ranking exercise should be hopelessly complex at the international level. After all, the higher ed systems in different countries are different; more importantly, their funding patterns are different. How can one compare, for example, a hub-and-spoke and multi-campus university like the University of Delhi and a tech-centric ‘small’ university like CalTech?

Global ranking exercises, of course, don’t want to — and don’t want you to — look at the enormous complexity that arises from regional variations. By claiming to do the hard work on your behalf, they encourage your laziness!

For example, they want you to ignore a key fact about excellence: it’s always the individual research groups that are the repositories of excellence. Thus, even in supposedly moribund Indian universities, there are such islands of excellence in specific subfields. A good example would be the School of Chemistry in the University of Hyderabad, or the Department of Physics in the University of Pune. The rankings also have an inherent bias against small institutions (and India has quite a few of them). For example, places like the Raman Research Institute, the S.N. Bose Natiaonal Centre for Basic Sciences, or the National Center for Biological Sciences are outside the radar screen of most rankings, in spite of their great research groups, simply because they are small and niche players.

Of course, it is certainly a great feat to put together a large university, with a solid academic and research footprint in many fields. Thus, despite their shortcomings, these rankings do do a good job of identifying the top research universities. By the same token, the top 20 (or even the top 50) universities in these lists are not very different. It’s only when you move away from these top universities that you start seeing the effects of the rankings’ individual quirks.

* * *

[1] In the mid-nineties, there was a ‘ranking’ that took India by storm. Coming from someone (whose name eludes me now) in the University of Maryland, it placed IISc at No. 17 and several IITs in the top 100. It got a lot of play in Indian press for sometime; it was, fortunately, a one-off affair.

[2] For what it’s worth, a recent issue of Newsweek put out its own list of top 100 ‘most global universities‘. Washington Monthly has a sort of anti-U.S. News listing of U.S. universities based on a measure of ‘excellence’ using a different set of critieria.


17 thoughts on “Ranking of universities across the world

  1. I have not paid much attention to the problem and these are offhand comments. There is lot of money in education and countries like USA, UK, Australia are trying to attract students to support their economies and universities. Moreover USA needs lot of graduate students to keep their programmes going and they cannot get enough students or find jobs for them in USA. So these rankings help in these projects. USA, of course, has several excellent universities and there is also the flexibility for students to find a university and programme of their choice. My impression is that many universities in austalia and UK are not that great and I think that elit institutes and central universities in India are a lot better than most universities in these countries. This does not mean that there is no need for improvement in India. More accountability practices like student evaluation, better traing for university teachers etc are needed and there are several ongoing programmes for these. Another problem in India is for teachers in moffusil universities some of the current research problems may look very abstract and meaningless when they are surrounded by so much poverty and politics. Perhaps, there can be emphasis on more down to earth subjects compared to glamorous subjects. Finally, I believe that students learn in spite of teachers if the facilities good libraries are available and there is not too much pressure to cram too much. I think that these rankings should be ignored and one should proceed adopting to Indian requirements.
    I must add that I do not mean to offend anybody and these are just stray and somewhat incoherent observations.. If they stimulate some discussion, it is fine. Otherwise, please ignore them.

  2. whatever is said here is actually many a times happens.i have found many news daily’s&websites ranking the universities andcolleges with reference to a particular university or college.Also basing on placial discrimination and all. i have seen a website placed IISc in 800 positon in the world .I’ve also seen a weekly from London which plced IIT,Bombay in 2 place in world’s technological universities and institutes. So always this type of rankings depends upon several factors like these which actually don’t come into account….better having an idea but not confining to such rankings…


  3. UNIVERSITY OF MADRAS is the one of the oldest university in India,In this university Department of management studies is the oldest department which was specially started to educate and give hands on experience to the students in the field of management which was started in 1955

  4. Hi guys.Chill.Forget the world rankings for a while.But frankly speaking, the quality of Indian students is going down day by day.Its the average quality I am talking about.I am at IISc in an ME course.I have seen some students here.The average is not good at all.Thanks to the stupid coaching centers and no interview for high rankers.Even the average motivation of students is low.I have some friends at IITs at the Btech level.Just that they are more methodical and sincere than the lazier students of India.There are very few IITans and IIScans who are really good.Rest is just “time pass” guys.And we all smile at that :).However,everything has a reason.

    The point is as follows.We all have wasted lots of time during our childhood.Our schooling,in general has been bad.Accept the fact.Discipline and all the history/civics is fine,nothing great about that, in fact they are very basic requirements.But the students need to take subjects like physics,maths(may be chemistry and basic biology after a few years of change) early on in childhood,may be in a creative way.This will really have a beautiful effect on the child’s brain if done in a good way.Frankly speaking,today,the international science is much ahead of us,and the major possibility to win a Nobel in a subject like physics,I suppose,lies now in modern physics,quantum and all that weird stuff(I am not a physicist).And we still make the students feel that if he or she is stuying Newton’s laws of motion,he is going to become a physicist.Misleading the students mind.A lot of responsibility goes to the half educated relatives and family.I am aware of a fact or a rumor that the best mathematicians in the world are from Russia,and also that the Russian schools make the children play and may be analyze games like chess and puzzles.Things are simple,just that we need an innovative and brave change in the educational system staring from the primary school.It (system) is not that bad,but it can definitely be bettered.I think even the teachers shall learn while teaching a child.We are humans,and we have the brains,we are not duds by birth as people might have started believing.One more thing that can be done is the following.We should make a subject selecting procedure early on.For example,the one who opts for science earlier in his/her studentship shall not be burdened too much with history/civics and we can have nice and jolly history/civics classes for them,may be without exams but with some slide shows,etc.For the ones who opt for arts,they can start studying passionately for things like IAS or some geography in a broader way.Obviously,we will have some scope to change our subjects may be with a loss of a year or 6 months(big deal!).

    For the semi scientists/scientists.
    Whatever you do,make sure that at least your child gets to know about co-ordiante and 3-D geometry early on (may be class 9 at max) in life even if the syllabus of Indian primary schools don’t change.An the basic geometry and alzebra from very good books by 6th standard.This isn’t difficult at all,its simple but made difficult.
    And the Indian families!The stupid saas bahoo.They should all be banned!And if you ask what will the bahoo and saas do at home?Frankly,the new generation ladies are better educated,and they can spend more time with their children may be playing chess or solving a puzzle or scramble or any other neat work.

    Hmm.got to go now.

  5. your intentions are good and you are quite right about the chhange required in the educational system in india raghu. but please don’t belittle the arts… India is still trying to advance in science research and compete with the rest of the world but when it comes to reserch in the areas of arts we are still in the dark ages.

    Devlopment cannot be a one sided affair, we cannot keep spending on science and expect the others to pick up. A good analogy would be that of the growth of the child which constitutes along with physical growth, emotional and intellectual growth. Uneven growth in any one of these areas will lead to an imbalance that will hinder the overall development of the child…

  6. Number of Nobel laureates are a global benchmark & is an important criteria. Lets face it, despite us touting IIT’s IISc. as one of the best institutes in the world, how many Nobel laureates have they produced ? This gives an idea about the standard of these institutes in a global perspective and thats where the ranking of Calcutta University makes sense. And get your facts right, can you say where you have learnt there are no publication in Nature & Science from Calcutta University? Get your facts right before publishing them publicly.

  7. I don’t think that the author’s diatribe against Calcutta University is justified. Its faculty, both at the postgraduate teaching departments, and at the affiliated research institutes get published in many respected journals (not necessarily Nature and Science). Its alumni do quite well in foreign universities, as well as national research institutes. Instead of criticizing large state run public universities (like Calcutta, Madras, Mumbai, etc.), the centre should allocate more funds to them that central universities and research institutes love to waste.

  8. US Universities are getting top ranks because of their survey only. If we do ranking will put US Universities in out of 400 by showing any reason. No one should have to believe those ranks given by US. If we take technology Japan is the number 1 in developing new products. But their Universities are also not in top.

  9. The fact that Madras University has lost it’s stature is known to everybody; what else we can expect from a faction ridden and politics infested University which is controlled by cast groups ? How can it concentrate on teaching if it has more than hundred vacancies unfilled for reasons other than academic. The selection of VC’s also contributes to it.GOD save our UNIVERSITY !

    1. Was there ever a time in India when the government took steps to keep the best of talents in the country ??? Instead they brag about the fact that Indian students excel in foreign lands, which is actually quite shameful because they were not given the same opportunity in India. Instead they are busy attracting less talented students, just because their community will vote for them. In fact has anyone noticed the inverse correlation of ultra talented Indians who had studied in a non reserved system and how they have gone down drastically over time nowadays, as the percentage of reservation has increased ???

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