Lower the bar, lower the performance

In our previous article titled League Tables, Rankings, and Reputation, we provided a brief explanation of the methodology used by the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) system to rank universities. Unsurprisingly, the usual suspects occupied the top of the list: MIT, Imperial College, Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, and so on. While most of us did not expect the Indian Institutes of Technology to feature very high up, an even sorrier situation was highlighted when the BRICS version of this ranking scheme – considering the top universities in Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – showed that IIT Delhi came in at a trifling 13th [1]. However, if you thought our higher education institutes were letting us down, then do not be surprised that Indian students rank bottom – 72nd and 73rd – on the 2012 PISA assessment. The PISA surveys, a global test of learning standards conducted in 74 nations by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and widely regarded as an accurate gauge of the education quality within these countries, test 15-year-olds’ abilities in mathematics, reading, and science; in some countries, problem solving and financial literacy also is included [2].

Despite their shortcomings, along with the Times Higher Education (THE) World Rankings and the Shanghai Rankings, the 10-year-old QS rankings remain vital in drawing high-quality research and teaching staff; students with good academic performance; and huge financial support. The teaching quality, one of the most important factors, does not feature in the ranking assessment. Although not a single Indian university fell within the top 200, you may think, “But at least the teaching quality must be good, some of them are outstanding”. Stop right there! Bureaucratic meddling has turned some of the finest Indian institutes into those churning out mostly mediocre, unimaginative ‘talents’, no offence intended [sic] towards Sachin and Binny Bansal.

How? Brand name expansion and the expanding the quota system. Now before you become sensitive towards the backwardness of this country, understand this: not too long ago, the Chinese government became involved in its higher education institutes too. Rather than for the sake of political convenience, as did their Indian counterparts, it supported the nine best-performing universities to rank among the world’s best and, predictably, succeeded. The Indian version of government involvement features the opening of more IITs and admitting more students irrespective of their capabilities and quality; the inability to retain the finest staff members has resulted in many unfilled teaching positions and a rather average faculty. In his book, The Post-American World, Fareed Zakaria disputes, “… many of the IITs are decidedly second-rate, with mediocre equipment, indifferent teachers, and unimaginative class work”. However, the fundamental reason for the students’ strength rests on their ability to pass “one of the world’s most ruthlessly competitive entrance exams. Three hundred thousand people take it, five thousand are admitted–an acceptance rate of 1.7% (compared with 9 to 10 percent for Harvard, Yale, and Princeton)”.

China realised that the cultural Marxist tenet of creating equality does not work when striving for excellence; it, too, has plenty of impoverished citizens but is moving forward in bettering its education and research policies and practices. It is not just China, the German government too focused on a few select universities and, well, we do not need reminding of the strengths of their universities. Conversely, India is regressing. Creating a level playing field does not work in education because of the law of averages: the truly excellent are stifled and the truly dismal are given opportunities at the former’s expense. Just think of this: the 15-year-old students who participated in the 2012 PISA survey finished second to bottom in mathematics and at the bottom in science! In the span of just two generations, Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea have transitioned from poor to rich economies and all three are within the top percentile of the PISA rankings – let that sink in. The foundation between aspiring to become among the best economically involves a cracking education.

For a country that boasts regularly about being an ancient superpower in terms of knowledge, the universities at Taxila and Nalanda, this is severe dent in its global ambitions. If India truly desires both to become a global mover and to be taken seriously on the world stage, because we really are not, the image of being the ‘model’ third-world country must be eliminated and it all starts with striving for excellence in all fields, starting with the core – education. Ad meliora!

[1] http://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/brics-rankings/2014

[2] http://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisaproducts/pisa2012technicalreport.htm


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