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Focus should lie on excellence, not ranking: Directors of IIT Madras, IISc Bangalore at ThinkEdu 2024

Focus should lie on excellence, not ranking: Directors of IIT Madras, IISc Bangalore at ThinkEdu 2024

Talking to SASTRA University VC and panel moderator S Vaidhyasubramaniam, IIT Madras Director V Kamakoti and IISc Director Prof Govindan Rangarajan concurred that pursuing excellence fetches rankings

Taking on the question of the relevance rankings for Higher Education Institutions, particularly Institutions of Eminence, Prof V Kamakoti, Director of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras and Prof Govindan Rangarajan, Director of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru delved deeper into their implications beyond just a number, in a panel discussion titled “Ranking & Ratings: Do They Matter?” at Day Two of the ThinkEdu Conclave 2024, presented by SASTRA University. 

Prof Rangarajan, answering Vice-Chancellor of SASTRA University and panel moderator S Vaidhyasubramaniam’s question about the confusion between ranking and rating in the common imagination, said they are different aspects of measuring an institution’s functioning. “There might be more focus on rankings as they give a numerical order, and a highly-rated institution may not always be highly ranked,” he pointed out. However, he adds that there is no point in pontificating on the difference between them, and institutions must “focus on excellence”, as he puts it.

Concurring to this, Prof Kamakoti chipped in that IITs and the IISc go by the principles of the Bhagavad Gita. “We perform our duties, and the result takes second place,” he explains. He adds that in preparation for the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) Ranking and QS World Ranking, they evaluate various data inputs of IIT Madras’ performance, which gives them a lot of insights. “We simply treat it like an audit,” said Prof Kamakoti about the evaluation exercise for the QS Rankings.

On the question of the transparency of the evaluation process of ranking organisations, Prof Kamakoti retorted that this question only arises when institutions look at ranking for ranking’s sake. “We have improved our internal documentation processes based on the parameters of the ranking frameworks,” he added. 

He cited an example of how IIT Madras ranked higher once they started to document their sustainability projects to meet the QS World Rankings’ new parameter of sustainability, they ranked higher. In addition, he also revealed that preparing data for the International Research Network category in the QS World Ranking has also made IIT Madras reevaluate its research network and collaboration. 

“If we do good work, a high rank is the consequence — even if the good work could potentially lower your rank,” Prof Kamakoti summed up.

Adding more insight into the need to constantly pursue excellence, Prof Rangarajan points to IISc’s contributions to the nation-building process of India since its inception. Chalking up its involvement in the Space Research Programme, as well as the Atomic Energy Programme, he says that IISc has been a mother institution to many other institutions — and takes this role very seriously.

“We imbibe this culture of excellence and hard work in our students, who then go out to lead and even establish other scientific institutions in India. I would say that our students are our best product,” asserts Prof Rangarajan.

Globalising the NIRF

On whether the NIRF, which is developed in the context of India’s education system, can truly become a global ranking framework similar to the Shanghai Rankings, Prof Rangarajan said that there is no barrier to the NIRF going global, as long as its rankings have credibility and choose the right parameters. 

Even if the NIRF has to seek input from institutions, he said that this will become easier with building credibility. “The NIRF could slowly expand its reach to Asia, and gradually go global,” he added. 

Prof Kamakoti added that there also need to be country-specific parameters, for “each country has her own DNA”, as he put it. He explained, “If NIRF has to succeed as an international ranking framework, it has to consider the institutions’ social commitments to their countries, and include a few country-specific blocks which must be given about 50 per cent weightage.”

Further, he said that NIRF has been evolving to solve the complexities of the present in India. 

S Vaidhyasubramaniam, Vice-Chancellor of SASTRA University and Chair of the panel discussion chimed in and suggested, “Public and private Higher Education Institutions in North America are not differentiated and hence, there is parity in global ranking parameters. The NIRF methodology needs to polish the parameters to equalise the public-private differential in India.”

Giving innovation a measure

Weighing more on how to quantify “innovation”, Prof Kamakoti explained that innovation in an educational institution can be measured through the number of patents that emerge from it, the technology transfers that happen within it, and how many start-ups incubated in the institution receive funding. 

Further, he added that innovation is a separate category in most ranking frameworks and that the highest-ranking institutions also score big on innovation.

Paving the way for the future

Echoing back to IISc’s role as a “mother institution”, Prof Rangarajan said that setting an example for other institutions is their way of mentoring them. “As an institute established before India’s independence, we have weathered several storms and policy changes, while prioritising excellence,” he explained, suggesting that institutions have much to learn from IISc. 

As for preparing the next generation of leadership within institutions, Prof Rangarajan said that universities must have pipelines to groom the candidates next in line for the posts of directors or vice-chancellors to have the required leadership qualities. Further, he added that these responsibilities are given to younger people. “These days, we even see kids leading start-ups. We must trust our youth,” he said.

In line with Prof Rangarajan’s comments about establishing leadership pipelines, Prof Kamakoti recalled how the last three directors of IIT Madras have been groomed to assume the position of the director by their predecessors. “Due to this, the transition was so smooth that it did not disrupt the university’s functioning,” he said. 

Prof Kamakoti also added that IIT Madras is now leaning to include more women in leadership roles, with the appointment of Prof Preeti Aghalayam as Director to the Zanzibar campus of IIT Madras. 

Answering a question by the Editor of the New Indian Express Group, Santwana Bhattacharya, on why IISc does not hire its own PhD alumni as professors, Prof Rangarajan said that this is done to inspire fresher thoughts and ideas.

Prof Kamakoti also fielded questions from the answers and revealed that 5 per cent of IIT Madras graduates have gone abroad for employment and higher education in the last five years.

When asked about IIT Madras’ commitment to inclusivity and diversity in hiring for professor posts, he revealed that IIT Madras has had no backlog in the rosters for reserved posts as per the Central Universities Act in the last four years.

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