After IIT Madras was placed in the top rank in the ‘Overall’ category in the NIRF Rankings 2022 for the fourth consecutive year, I wrote an article listing three traits that make an institute of excellence.
In response to the article, one of the readers wrote a comment highlighting that “research regenerates institute and faculty while teaching generates engineers for industry. IITs need to take pride in research to improve their global ranking.”
This set me thinking about research at IITs and in Indian universities in general. Let me begin by framing the problem in a quantitative sense, using the QS and NIRF rankings as my metric ruler.
India is home to 1,043 universities, 42,343 colleges and 11,779 stand-alone educational institutions. Of these, 41 were ‘ranked’ by QS. In contrast, and to our satisfaction, 4,786 institutions participated in the NIRF 2022 rankings process of the Ministry of Education, Govt. of India.
Participation in a rankings process is extremely beneficial to any organisation, as it holds a mirror to oneself. Both these rankings reward research excellence, albeit through different rubrics.
It is very clear that an institution (or analogously a country) that wants to improve its stature in world rankings needs to be a producer of original research.
There are three key ingredients to becoming a systemic producer of original knowledge: an encouraging and conducive atmosphere for research, access to world-class equipment and infrastructure, and excellent human resources for faculty and graduate students.
GRADUATE STUDENTS AS THE KEY INGREDIENT
Let us focus this discussion on human resources – primarily good graduate students. Graduate students who are trained to the highest quality and highly motivated towards seeking new knowledge are crucial to establishing a world-class research programme.
When we study countries that have established world-class institutions, one striking feature emerges from a study of the ranking positions that institutions from that country occupy.
All large countries (and there are only 12 countries represented in the top 50 QS ranked universities) that have representation of institutions in the top QS ranks also have universities ranked in the 100s, 200s, 300s and so on up to the 800s. Only Singapore and Hong Kong are exceptions to this rule.
Two inferences can be drawn from a deeper analysis of this data. Firstly, institutions in these countries with varying levels of research output seem to participate in the rankings process.
The NIRF ranking has made significant strides in bringing a large number of Indian institutions into the rankings fold. However, only a few are featured in the QS rankings with NIT-Trichy being the lone NIT!
Indian institutions must now continue in the NIRF footsteps to participate in the global rankings as well. This is an important step for each university toward becoming a relevant ecosystem partner.
Secondly and more importantly, a continuum of institutions is required in a country before some of them rise into the top 50. No institution in any country can rise to be top-ranked while leaving behind the rest of the institutions in the country. This must be particularly true for a country like India where a significant fraction of our research students come from within.
IISc and IITs (including the newer ones) are ranked between 150 and 300s on the QS Rankings. No Indian institution then shows up till almost the mid-500s – a big rankings gap that needs to be remedied soon. India is one of only three large countries that show such a rankings gap.
The IITs and IISc draw their graduate students from the NIT and state university systems. The better the quality of this manpower entering the research portals of India, the sooner an Indian institution can aspire to become a global research powerhouse.
STATE UNIVERSITY RESEARCH EXCELLENCE PROGRAMME BY DST
As I write this piece, the Department of Science and Technology – Science and Engineering Research Board (DST-SERB) is launching a programme called State University Research Excellence (SERB SURE).
The objective of the programme is to “augment the research capabilities in a structured way to create a robust R&D ecosystem in state universities and colleges by fostering collaboration with high-end research”.
Speaking during the launch of SURE, Dr. Chandrasekhar, Chairman, SERB and Secretary DST said that this programme, “will allow state universities to come into mainstream research” and “propagate scientific temper among faculty and students in our state universities”.
This is a welcome and long overdue step towards alleviating the gap and creating a continuum of research institutions. Similar programmes need to be created to include the NITs and other CFTIs as well. Counterintuitively, there is no better investment than this to improve the quality of research at the IITs!
No country has produced world-class research institutions without an ecosystem to create the talent pool needed to get there. India is on a mission to build globally-ranked and relevant institutions – every university has a role to play in this mission.