Atanu Dey On India's Development

The World University Rankings 2010

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I just can’t bring myself to trust the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. It is clearly wrong. Any ranking which puts UC Berkeley below that junior university is obviously suspect, in my considered o-pee-nee-awhn.

OK, now that I have dispensed with the mandatory dig at the “Leland Stanford Junior University” aka Stanford University, the arch enemy of my alma mater UC Berkeley, let’s see what the list says.

In the top 20 of this list, the US has 15, UK has 3, and one each from Canada and Singapore.

In the top 200, the US appears 72 times, UK appears 29 times, Germany 14, Netherlands 10, Canada 9, Australia 7, China 6 (including Hong Kong, the total is 10), Sweden 6, Taiwan 5, Japan 5, France 4, South Korea 4, Denmark 3, Singapore 2, Spain 2, Belgium 2, Turkey 2, . . .

Where on earth is India? Isn’t India an IT superpower? What about the IIT’s? Where on earth are the IITs? Why isn’t Chacha Nehru’s great experiment in socialism working as advertised?

In fact, the page listing the top Asian Universities in the Times Higher Ed rankings lists 27 universities: India 0 out of 27.

India not showing in rankings is not new. Here’s something from Dec 2006, “Desperately Seeking India’s Google“:

The Silicon Valley in California is an incubator for world class innovative technology companies. Why is that? Perhaps it has something to do with the presence of world class universities. The August 21/28th issue of Newsweek has an article titled “World of Knowledge” which focuses on education and global universities. Newsweek’s ranking which shows “that the world’s top 10 includes eight American universities plus Oxford and Cambridge.” It goes on to note that “of the next 40, 22 are American, five are British, five are Swiss, three are Canadian, two are Japanese, two are Australian, and one is Singaporean.”

Curiously, the combined populations of the countries that account for the top 50 global universities in the Newsweek ranking approximate the population of India. Not one of the 272 universities in India figures in that list, however. Four of the top 10 universities are in California. Stanford (established 1885) ranks 2nd, California Institute of Technology (est. 1891) is 4th, UC Berkeley (my alma mater, est. 1868) is 5th, and UC San Francisco (est. 1873) is 9th.

Of the top 50 universities, 30 are American. Is it any wonder that the US leads the world in innovation and technology? And of the top 10, four are in California. Is it any wonder that within the US, California is the home of the Silicon Valley? Not just that, Yahoo!, Google, SUN, and a whole host of lesser known global firms have been born at Stanford University. Something in the water in northern California? Or does it have something to do with the universities?

In June 2008, I noted in “Ranking Universities on Web Visibility

In the final 5,000 rankings, there were 30 Indian institutions. The top ranked Indian university was IIT Bombay (ranked 559 of 5000) and last to make it into that list was IIIT Allahabad (ranked 4723 of 5000). In the top 1000, US had 369, India had 4, and China had 17.

Unsurprisingly, 44 US institutions were ranked in the top 50. After all, the web and the internet were not only born in the US but the midwives were US universities.

(I am especially pleased to note these rankings: IIT Kanpur (995th in the world), Rutgers (28th), Berkeley (5th), and Stanford (2nd) — schools that I attended.)

As India is around a sixth of the world population, to be at par, India should have had around 600 universities in the top 5000 instead of the 30 it has. We do hear all the time that “India is an IT superpower.” Well, that claim will be more credible if its educational institutions actually did have something to do with the use of IT.

Wakey, wakey, Mr Sibal. It is time to think for a bit instead of wasting time doing stupid things like announcing $10 “laptops” and $35 “tablets.”

Post Script: Here’s a wonderful short introduction to the history of Stanford University. The urban legend mentioned in it is one of the best that I have ever heard.

  • jb

    I recently heard that IT revenues for the entire Indian outsourcing sector is ~$70B in total. That is 10-15% higher than the revenues of Microsoft “or” Apple alone! I’m not sure where the sense of superpower comes from?

    To be realistic, it should be said that India is a labor arbitrage superpower for low-end clerical IT work. People tend to mislabel all IT as high tech, even though a lot of IT is mere automation of clerical jobs – you can say that about all of ERP for example. Even in the pathetic call center business, I recently heard that Philippines is stealing a lot of Indian jobs.

    An even basic issue – the concept of education and university itself is flawed. Kids are trained to think about university/degree as the path to a job and it doesn’t matter how one procures the degree. Understanding or true education probably barely exists in few colleges in India.

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  • http://AjitJadhav.wordpress.com Dr. Ajit R. Jadhav

    Atanu,

    I would like to reserve my overall opinion until Sept. 23, when they publish rankings for Engineering + [tch tch] IT.

    However, I can still say right off the bat that for the general rankings, if they put:

    (i) CalTech ahead of all: MIT, Princeton and Cambridge;
    (ii) CalTech in top 5;
    (iii) UC Davis ahead of all: Brown, Dartmouth, William & Mary, and Trinity;
    (iv) Michigan in top 50;
    (v) UC Riverside, and UC Santa Cruz in this list,

    then the only conclusion possible is the following:

    namely, that there exists a “Phirang” Indu Jain. QED.

    –Ajit
    PS: The comment on Chaachaa Nehru is well taken.

  • Loknath

    Being a Janitor in an IT firm myself, I can conclusievly say that we are not even treated worthy of writing a single line of important code. What most Indian IT firms do is to be watchdog of systems already working and that means absolutely low end work. This is true for 95% of Indian IT. Remaining 5% of actually serious jobs.. are a matter of luck and cheap quotes and that too is eventually ratified by some gora before it is deployed. Sampe this now.. a good ERP consultant in US gets paid on the avergae 150-200 USD per hour. We get 10 of them in India for that price.

  • Loknath

    It would be a travesty to call IIT’s as even universities. At the most they can match come community colleges in US or may not not even that. Universities evolve out of tradition and emphasis on all spheres of knowledge.. from Anthropoloy to Zoology, from Engineering to Theology. Universities are rendezvous of thinking minds, a place for arguments and debates, a place where there is participation of people from myriad backgrounds, a place where cross disciplinary thinking is considered a habit. IIT’s are just a self-indulgent arrogant breed who just by virtue of how statistically difficult is it to get there, nurtures pretense and false sense of knowledge. Their achievement ends there.. getting into an IIT. IIT as a system of institutions has worked only by virtue of networking.If there is an opportunity posted by an IITian, in all likelihood, only an IIT’ian will come to know about it and get it. Its like our age old bramhinical tradition who think they are the only ones who are storehouse of knowledge by Gods decree

  • http://www.indianliberals.org Ashish Deodhar

    @Atanu

    I think the IITs don’t find a mention in this list is because they are not universities. I had to same question when I was looking for leading MBA programs and realized that IIMs don’t find a mention there. Then I came to know that IIMs don’t offer MBA programs!

    ISB, by the way, appears in the top 20 FT MBA rankings.

    • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

      Ashish,

      Yes, I know that the IITs are not universities. My point is about universities. No Indian university makes it in the recent list. That’s the shame.

      I think that the IITs may show up in a list of technical schools — but that list will have to be very long since most of the US universities have very good science and engineering colleges. UC Berkeley’s School of Engineering can beat any IIT blindfolded, drunk, and one arm tied behind its back.

      I know that the IITs graduate some good engineers but that is largely due to the fact that they are basically sorting machines which separate the top 1 percent of the students from the rest.

  • http://ketanpanchal.blogspot.com Ketan

    Atanu,

    I totally get your point, and there is nothing much to add there. I have never studied in a foreign University (not even stepped outside of India, for that matter!).

    Just like how you point out the best IT and technology companies are located in California, there is another important criterion to be considered – quality of textbooks. Indian medical textbooks are mostly pathetic. I had heard that one ‘Association of Physicians of India’s Textbook of Medicine’, which was purportedly written by the best of the best in India had been kept on hold for more than a year from publishing on a case filed by McGraw-Hill, because it had plagiarized from the ‘Harrison’s Textbook of Internal Medicine’! Some of the best books I have read are all foreign. They have a no-nonsense approach, yet it is amazing, how they start from the level of the reader and step-by-step carry the reader to a level of knowledge that would approach that of the author. Whereas, Indian medical texts are simply watered down version of postgraduate level books to be read by graduate (corresponding with undergraduates of the US). Of course, it is not a case that Indians don’t have knowledge in the medical field, but one of the problems perhaps is that education in India provides both little monetary benefit or almost no professional satisfaction. You had pointed out in one of your blog posts that most of the education in India is state-controlled. What this does is that selection of teachers is on some stupid bases like marks obtained, caste, experience, etc. [Please note: here I call marks obtained a stupid criterion simply because in my understanding the exams don't test any of the vital skills of the students, except for how much they can learn with repetition - be it memorization or how to 'fit' a given set of data into a memorized formula from 'practice' (an honorable term for repetition)]. Teaching, just like all other jobs, is only for sake of livelihood. Very few are passionate about teaching. Moreover, students also have the same approach. Perhaps, someone who would have best become a singer or a cricketer or a novelist, sit in some science and maths classes. They develop hatred for the teacher, they don’t provide the much needed encouragement, they don’t ask doubts, there is nothing that inspires the teachers. These students are committed to a rat race to ‘crack’ some entrance exam. They want teachers to be ‘exam-focused’, and as I said above these exams are stupid. The cycle continues, and much worse is becoming firmer with time.

    I can perhaps go on and on about the problems afflicting the Indian education system. Even those who do well abroad, having studied in India, are quite surprised that they are faced with exams like GRE, with maths, English and mental ability (or some subject like that).

    As an aside, I associate The University of California at Berkely with a set of physics book they had developed as part of their undergraduate program. It was a set of 5 volumes. They were some of the best books I had ever read. I learned that they had stopped publishing them. I also used to get surprised that few students in their preparation for IIT-JEE used to read them [I never attempted the JEE, as I never wanted to enter engineering, but used to read science books out of interest], which I suspected was because these books used to use British foot-pound-second system or cgs units instead of SI units, and so the students would not be able to ‘practice’ for JEE! And also because the thrust of the book used to be explaining concepts textually rather than teaching how to ‘apply’ formulas.:D Another reason I had read about Berkeley was because in another text book of physics I had seen the picture of cyclotron at Berkeley (hoping that my memory is serving me right! :D ) and I was quite impressed with the concept involved. Perhaps, your alma mater has produced many Nobel laureates in physics. It is good to see you being proud and fond of your University and justifiably so; I can’t say the same about mine. :(

  • http://ketanpanchal.blogspot.com Ketan

    One more thing Atanu, in my analysis I have not even thought why the quality of research sucks in Indian institutes. I know quality of research is an important criterion for ranking a university, but I totally forgot about it, simply because in my education till now, I have encountered virtually no research!

    The same reasons people do not enter teaching apply to research in India also – there is no incentive to do research! A few people I felt were passionate about it, encounter our bureaucratic red tape – lack of funding, lack of encouragement, if the boss gets miffed, then no ‘promotion’. Isn’t it surprising, just like education is the monopoly of state, so is research and both totally suck?!

    I never approached my teachers to guide me on how to conduct research or write a research paper. I doubt if any one of them had published anything of any value. And moreover, I would be afraid that if they suspect me to be “acting smart” (a term applied to students who show genuine interest in academics), I could be flunked. There used to be set limits, e.g., “the passing percentage this year should be 70%”. It might sound ridiculous, but students would be flunked randomly, and no doubt, ‘contacts’ and ‘from my caste’, ‘from my district’ kind of considerations used to play a role.

    In my first practical exam in physiology, I was awarded the lowest marks in physiology in a viva voce, guess, why… because I answered the unit of force was ‘newton’, and that miffed the ‘teacher’! Anyway, people would not be able to believe how pathetic medical education in India is. :(

  • http://ketanpanchal.blogspot.com Ketan

    A request Atanu, – do you mind opening your older posts to commenting? I read many of your old posts and feel like commenting. Thanks!

  • http://ketanpanchal.blogspot.com Ketan

    Steven Weinberg is from your University. :) But especially after Obama won the Prize (of course for Peace), I no longer hold the Prize in high esteem I used to.

  • larissa

    I think universities ought to be ranked for the sciences and liberal arts. In terms of liberal arts, most of the really good books are still from the German Universities a great deal of good science and technology also comes from there. These rankings are arbitrary in many ways as it does not include German and French Universities which are also top notch, although not as highly funded as American ones.

    However Indian Universities are nowhere to be seen. No surprise as India has not produced anything worthwhile in the last 800 years (with the exception of a handful of geniuses). I think it is time Indians take heart and realize how mediocre they really are, that their country has been stagnant for hundreds of years. There is also not much culture in India (apart from the perpetuation of the old forms are not revitalized to suit modernity) and India only is able to imitate. India cannot even be a clever imitator like the Japanese (improving upon the imitation and making it Japanese) and imitates crudely. In short, they have not much to be pround of since independence.

  • larissa

    As for India not being on the list, at least Nehru set up IIT’s although he only focused on education at elite institutions not on mass education. The effects shows in Indian vast illiteracy and semi-illiteracy and technical incompetence. What did his descendants set up? Most of them were college drop outs for several generations of the Congress Party leadership. How can such people even understand the importance of Universities and education?
    India’s population now consists of young people. The Congress government makes sure most will be semi-educated. Modi was right to state that there is no cause for celebrating children’s day, when the government makes sure the children are stunted educationally.

  • http://www.indianliberals.org Ashish Deodhar

    @Atanu

    Yeah that’s true and it’s a shame!

    I think it goes back to the quality of education offered in Indian universities and the resultant quality of graduates they churn out. Having seen the education system both in India and here in the UK, I am convinced that state ownership of educational institutions (esp. universities) is the real culprit. The universities have very little incentive to raise their education standards and it shows in the kind of students they deliver.

    Equally critical to this failure is our own mindset. I remember my school teachers telling us to mug things so that we could get the highest marks in our exams. I remember being made to write the same answers 100 times in order to get them absolutely right! (you should be able to remember these answers even in your sleep, I remember being told!).

    Another example I remember of my college days. I had asked one of our lecturers the logic behind a certain order of entries in P&L accounts and remember him telling me that you don’t get marks for understanding the logic! :)

    Very little incentive there for children to ask probing questions and think critically then. In light of that, I am glad that such universities don’t make it to the world’s best universities.

  • http://ketanpanchal.blogspot.com Ketan

    Ashish (and also Atanu),

    Totally off-topic, but hope you people won’t mind.

    I was smiling as I read Ashish’s above comment, because I have mentioned almost exactly the same points in my above comments (I don’t know if Ashish read them). This because, just a few minutes back Ashish had disagreed quite wholly with me on my hypothesis on the reasons for the bias in the Indian media.

    When I encounter almost complete agreement with analysis on some issue and complete disagreement on some other issue – both coming from the same persons, then I wonder what could be the cause? Is it our personal experiences? Is it the subjectivity in what we consider as ‘more likely’ v/s ‘less likely’?

    Such cases amuse me, but also instill a certain kind of fear that I could be wrong where there is a disagreement. And in such instances, I only hope that I would be able to re-assess my position with honesty.

  • http://www.indianliberals.org Ashish Deodhar

    Hi Ketan

    Just read your earlier comments after reading your last one.

    I think it’s perfectly normal for people to agree on some issues and disagree on others. It doesn’t mean that one has to be right and the other wrong. (as long as their views aren’t bigoted! For instance, I would never agree to disagree with religious fanatics, racists etc).

    I think you are right when you say that it’s about personal experiences and information one has been exposed to.

    Atanu, sorry for drifting off-topic.

  • gajanan

    India should have kept the number of IITs the same number. They should have divided some huge unmanageable universties, into four or three and given funds to them, recruited good staff, pay them well, and evaluate these universities after 12 yrs for performance and then upgrade them, like for example they did with Univ of Roorkee. Building more IITs is no solution. You should have IIT;s but not have them diluted by building more. I can tell you I have found Jadavpur Univ undergrads as good as IITs undergraduates. So the solution is to upgrade the univ as mentioned in the first few lines.

    These rankings have no meaning , because they put funding criteria to a very high level. Indian IITs and even IIScs will not come near any hugely funded univ overseas. I am not defending IIT’s as the research output is not as high the govt input of money in the Indian context. For example , the best physicist in India is Prof Ashok Sen, who works in string theory a very frontier area of physics. He works in Harischandra Institute of Sciences , Allahabad. Sitting in Ganga Kinare , this Prof has produced world class work. The moral of this is in India we have the talent , but one must fund and recruit well.

    Too much fixation with IIT is not good. For example Venkataraman Ramakrishnan is from MS University Baroda, last yrs Nobel laureate in Chemistry. IIT;s course work in chemistry is world class. Venky comes from the IIT birth era, but he has become the first from this era not from the IIT portal. MS University Baroda undergraduates in Biosciences and sciences are as good as many bioscience undergraduates says my academic friend from USA. So what is to be done . Either the govt fund , recruit excellent staff and give MS University what the postgrads deserve for research or pvt sector like the benovalent Tatas step in to help.

    India has too have manageable smaller universities. This can be done.

    One thing I do not like about the ranking is due to the following examples.

    Science in the early 20th century produced great masters.

    1) De Broglies PhD thesis is such a masterpiece , that its very slight extension landed him a Nobel Prize. Just guess how many papers? Single digit.

    2) Kalman filter in electrical eng is cited more than … I have lost count. again a single digit paper publisher.

    3) PCR reaction to scission the DNA . Mullis , I hope I have spelt the name right. Very few papers. Afer Nobel he is doing social work.

    4) Feynmann , 72 papers. One cannot describe this man’s genius

    5) Sanger , two Nobel prizes, 45 papers.

    6) Venky Ramakrishnan , 95 papers.

    All the above mentioned have very high quality papers.

    The present impact factor assessment , h factor is all statistical quagmire. For example in biology all journals have high Impact factor. The reason, suppose you have a team of 10 ( it is labor intensive) in a paper. One by one all leave to other destinations , then you will have all ten citing the paper which all ten have published together. So the statistics helps all the ten . Take mathematics. Very few come into this area. Generally it is single author or two or maximum three. So when three go to different destinations , they get only three citations . Statistics has let them down.

    I cannot go on and on, but in one line , if you ask me to be the judge to award Gulzar for Jai Ho or the late Sahir for ‘ Yeh Mahelo” . I will not rely on statistics. Gulzar comes trumps statiscally , but Sahir in terms of quality is a sure Nobel.

  • mg

    IT superpower, ha. Have you seen the news about the Commonwealth games fiasco? Super corrupt for sure. And, what is weird is why the commonwealth even exists? What are we celebrating? That we were a British colony? Mindboggling!

  • http://AjitJadhav.wordpress.com Dr. Ajit R. Jadhav

    Atanu,

    Something struck me after my above comment.

    Yes, it’s important not to forget the evil of socialism in any situation, including when it comes to education. And, yes, the comparative assessment that UCB E-School could beat any IIT “blindfolded, drunk, and one arm tied behind its back,” does hold by and large.

    The thing to strike me was the following.

    The same comparative assessment would also hold true, to a roughly *the same* extent, between UCB’s relevant departments and the Tata Institute in Bangalore that is IISc. Or the Tata Institute in Bombay that is TIFR.

    You could argue that the Nehruvian socialism took over IISc and TIFR, and offer *that* as an explanation. Valid. [Few know that a majority of IISc funds are controlled by Government of India.] But then, how about the Birlas Institute that is BITS Pilani?

    Also, how about comparing UCB Physics with IISc Bangalore during the time that CV Raman was still associated with the latter, and India had yet to go socialist (to the extent Chaachaa Nehru took it)?

    Obviously, there is a contradiction of the sorts in here, isn’t it?

    The paradox is resolved by noting that the point regarding the evil of socialism indeed is absolutely valid (and must be told again and again) but it is so *fundamental* a principle that it becomes too *general* in a context like this.

    To explain the paradox, we need a more particular context. For this paradox, it is: the general richness level of a country, and therefore of a university in it. It is this factor which really matters in comparisons of this sort. [By really I mean: without having to be defensive about it; as an objective criterion.]

    It is true that if Capitalism is predominant in a country, then it allows wealth creation, and therefore, the general wealth of a country increases. One the beneficial effects of Capitalism then is richer and therefore better performing institutions, including institutions of research, knowledge, education, etc.

    Yet, the above is a long chain of ideas. An explanatory link appearing in between is: *wealth*. Tatas cannot be expected to match the endowments made by the patrons/donors of, say, Harvard, or the US taxpayer’s money siphoned off to, say, a Berkeley (in addition to the alumni/patron donations it might receive).

    One final point. Though I was in the SF Bay Area about a decade ago, I didn’t have any occasion to visit the UCB campus or judge the cultural atmosphere now prevailing there. (I did visit the Stanford campus and found it boring, though nearby book stores in Palo Alto were better by atmosphere.) I have a question for you. UCB was famous for those nihilistic, Leftist student rebellions in the late 60s. Has it changed for the better?

    –Ajit
    PS: Guess I could condense this comment, but it will be an effort… I’ll let it be as it is.

  • ap

    Atanu, from the article
    Editor’s note: … only institutions that have actively signed up to the profiling process, and have provided and verified the data we need from them, are included…
    Did you stop for a moment to think if they even contacted Indian universities or that our Universities actually got past their beuracratic processes to provide valid information to be ranked???