INDIA’S downward slide in terms of international ranking of universities persists unchecked. This is evident from the recently published World Reputation Rankings of Times Higher Education (THE) and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) world university rankings. World Reputation Rankings reveal that India is the only country among BRIC nations which does not have a representative in the list of top 100 institutes and universities across the globe. Japan leads the charge of the Asian brigade with as many as five centres of tertiary education among the top 100. University of Tokyo occupies the 9th position. China has two universities in the top 50. West Asian nations are represented in the top 100 club by institutions in Israel and Turkey. Even Singapore features on the list. Its National University has been ranked 22nd.
No centre of higher education in India has found a place among the top 200 in the world in the comprehensive list of QS rankings. However, when the rankings were done separately for each academic discipline, 15 Indian institutions made it to the top 200. The Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi is a case in point. It ranks 37th in electrical and electronics engineering. It also holds the 43rd position in mechanical, aeronautical and manufacturing engineering. In the field of civil and structural engineering, the IITs in Mumbai and Chennai are ranked 39th and 46th respectively. Indian Institute of Science holds the 50th position on the list of materials science. Two central universities, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University, figure in the 51 to 100 band in English Language and Literature studies. For the same discipline, two universities of West Bengal ~ Jadavpur University and the University of Calcutta ~ are ranked between 151 and 200. The IITs in Mumbai and Delhi figure in the 51 to 100 band while Indian Institute of Science occupies a slot between 101 and 150 in Computer Science.
Both the World Reputation and QS rankings document the emergence of East Asian nations with their state of the art institutions energised by ambitious planning, huge financial investment and world-class faculty. Asia as a whole seems to be rising in the field of tertiary education. The gap between Asia and the Western nations is evidently narrowing every year. But India does not appear to be a part of the Asian success story in higher education. It is surprising that despite  a history of erudition, a democratic dispensation and an emerging economy, the country is unable to keep pace in academics. We can always question the accuracy and appropriateness of the yardsticks applied, but it is all too apparent that we are lagging. It is time to introspect and stem the rot.
In our country, populism holds sway over higher education. Demands are constantly made to start new educational institutes, offer fresh courses in existing ones, relax admission criteria, increase student-intake and quotas. Expansion in tertiary education is desirable, but it can spell disaster if it is arbitrary or hasty. Unfortunately in India such expansion is frequently driven by parochial interests. The result is reflected in the lack of infrastructure, shortage of experienced teachers, overcrowding in classrooms, influx of less able students, dilution of standards of teaching, learning and evaluation as well as the ambience of indiscipline. Lack of proper planning explains why many students, with limited intellectual endowments, meander through Masters and doctoral programmes. They often end up in jobs which hardly match their aspirations. We seem to have too many qualified people but very few with talent to justify their qualifications. This is unlike in the West where only the academically inclined and the ambitious opt for university education. Moreover, they have to either pass a rigorous entrance examination or prove their merit in some other way to get into a university.
In China and Japan, aspirants have to qualify through competitive tests to enter a university. We do not conduct national level examinations across disciplines to assess the eligibility of applicants at different stages of higher education. India&’s failure to make it to the comprehensive list of QS rankings and sporadic appearance on lists for different disciplines signify uneven development in tertiary education. Institutions like the Indian Institute of Science, Indian Institutes of Technology and a few university departments are islands of excellence in a scenario marked by mediocrity, inefficiency and chaos. Generous funding, reasonably good infrastructure, stringent recruitment / admission policies, brilliant teachers, meritorious students, quality research, important projects, a large number of patents, significant publications, international collaborations and effective outreach programmes are secrets of their success.
However, exclusivity of these intellectual hubs is increasingly under threat in the name of pluralism. There must be a balance between promotion of inclusiveness and brilliance. Intake of students can be increased in the general courses at the undergraduate level. Select students should be admitted to Honours and Masters courses. Merit must be the only criterion governing student-selection for undergraduate, honours, post-graduate and doctoral programmes.
Admittedly, educational policies and programmes are ultimately shaped by the polity. Academia only plays an advisory role. Problems arise when mainstream politics influences the day-to-day functioning of academic institutions in such matters as recruitment, promotion of academic administrators and faculty, student-admissions, conduct and results of examinations, acceptance of tenders and so on. Student unions often act at the behest of political parties and meddle in issues which hardly concern students. Huge amounts are spent by political parties to fund campaigns in student union elections. Union leaders  exert pressure on the authorities to bend rules and admit students of inferior calibre and allow absentee students to appear for the examinations. Campus violence is the most  dangerous outcome of student politics. The University Grants Commission must come up with effective regulations to combat political violence in tertiary institutions.
Decades of examination-centric education with emphasis on learning by rote has deprived Indians of  a cognitive mind and argumentative disposition. Tertiary level classrooms are, in general, uninspiring places where teachers mechanically dictate notes to passive and disinterested students.  Learning has become perfunctory; securing high marks, degrees and employment are greatly valued. Our education system seems to stifle originality. This has made the vast majority of educated youth apprehensive about thinking independently, forming opinions, using their imagination, contemplating abstract issues and devising novel solutions for existing problems. When creativity is being celebrated throughout the world, our society still expects everyone to tread the beaten path. Examples of how creativity is suppressed abound.   There has been a mushroom growth of pre-schools to train toddlers to secure admission to reputed schools. Parents are pleased if children pore over textbooks and never read storybooks. Teachers, tutors and parents prepare model answers for students to memorise and reproduce during examinations. Hobbies are not pursued for pleasure but for getting certificates, earning stipends, participating in stage-shows and competing in talent hunts. Opting for unusual disciplines is frowned upon. Most campuses are so poorly equipped that they cannot support first-rate research. The National Knowledge Commission must collaborate earnestly with the University Grants Commission to completely overhaul tertiary education so that the country&’s intellectual potential can be harnessed. We will then be able to regain our academic prestige.