Amid Free Speech, Casteism Concerns, Should University Rankings Be Revisited?
The National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) 2021, considered the definitive ranking of the best universities and colleges in the country, was released last week.
The list contained the usual suspects: the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras placed first in the ‘Overall Category’ for the sixth consecutive year and in the ‘Engineering Category.’ The Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad placed first in the ‘Management Category.’ The rest of the IITs, IIMs and Indian Institutes of Sciences (IISc) followed closely behind most of the eleven categories. Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) was also awarded a top spot in the ‘University Category.’
The consistent positioning of these institutes as the best deserves scrutiny in light of recent events. Two months ago, an Assistant Professor at IIT Madras resigned after allegedly facing casteism in the institution. His resignation lent faculty support to the issue of institutional casteism in supposedly elite higher education spaces. Many students and alumni responded by demanding grievance redressal cells for Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), and Other Backward Classes (OBC) communities within campuses.
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IIT Kharagpur, which secured the top 5 spots in two categories, came under fire recently when a video of a professor hurling casteist abuse at students went viral. A letter, signed by more than 1,000 alumni across IITs, responded to the incident by stating: “IITs are already notoriously hostile to Dalit, Adivasi and backward caste students.”
When the NIRF was set up in 2015, the then Minister for Human Resource Development Smriti Irani said that “the framework follows an Indian approach that considers India-centric parameters like diversity and inclusiveness apart from excellence in teaching and learning and research.” However, a look at the specifics of the ranking system shows that this is far from the case.
The ranking is based on the following parameters: Teaching, Learning, & Resources (TLR), Research and Professional Practice (RP), Graduation Outcomes (GO), Outreach and Inclusivity (OI), and Peer Perception. Each parameter has its own subset of parameters. The one that deserves attention, however, is the vaguely defined Outreach and Inclusivity parameter.
Across all categories, OI is given a mere 10% weightage in the ranking — the lowest, along with Peer Perception, among all five parameters. Further, OI has four sub-parameters: Percentage of Students from Other States/Countries (Region Diversity RD), Percentage of Women (Women Diversity WD), Economically and Socially Challenged Students (ESCS), Facilities for Physically Challenged Students (PCS). Out of a 100 mark OI score, ESCS constitutes a total of 20 marks. This means that the inclusion of marginalized students is given a 2% weightage to the overall rank in a particular category.
This is reflected in the percentage of marginalized students in the elite institutions listed in the rankings. The glaring exclusion of marginalized students in Ph.D. admissions at the IITs, as well as the high rate of dropouts, have been a subject of debate in recent months.
Moreover, while parameters include metrics like patents and publication quality, there is no metric to measure academic freedom — a rapidly deteriorating quality. The Academic Freedom in India Status Report 2020 by The India Forum noted that attacks on dissenting students and faculty, political appointments, faculty selection, and the freedom to “teach, study, and have an opinion,” among others, have all contributed to academic freedom seeing a downturn in recent years.
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Further, the Free to Think 2020 report by Scholars at Risk (SAR), an international network to protect academic freedom, noted the rise in incidents compromising academic freedom. It also pointed out that India’s ranking in the Academic Freedom Index was at par with countries like Saudi Arabia and Libya. “Over the past two years… the space for ideas and dialogue in India is being constricted, and dissent punished, endangering scholars and students whose views are disfavoured by the ruling government. This pattern has the potential to shrink the space for academic inquiry and impede the development of a national higher education sector that benefits and is inclusive of all members of Indian society,” the report said.
A few recent examples come to mind. A government rule, without state consultation, has made it mandatory for universities and academics to obtain clearance from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) before holding online seminars or discussions on “internal” and “sensitive” topics that compromise “national security.” The rule specifically singles out the northeastern states, Jammu and Kashmir, and the Ladakh region as subjects not allowed for discussion. Academics have widely criticized the move as it has far-reaching implications.
“Everything can potentially have security implications, and organizers will be under great pressure to also screen participants who are known to have critical positions,” Alka Acharya, a professor from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), told University World News.
Syllabus and curriculum changes have also become a recent point of contention. Just last month, Delhi University removed renowned Dalit authors Bama and Sukhartharini from the English Syllabus.
With ranking parameters elevating certain universities as bastions of quality education, questions about what education means and whom it is meant for get overlooked. Moreover, in an atmosphere of shrinking space to ask these questions, education stands to lose its moral foundations and merely serves as a depoliticized vehicle towards job markets for an elite few. We may already be on our way there.