Best, brightest: How NIRF Ranking in education could help students better

The National Institutional Ranking Framework and the Education Ministry recently released their India Rankings 2022. The rankings list the top ten higher educational institutions (HEI) across separate subjects, and overall.

IIT Madras topped the overall list. Miranda House topped the college rankings for the fourth year in a row; the Indian Institute of Science was number one among universities and IIT Madras aced the ranking for engineering institutions, while IIM-Ahmedabad topped the management list. NIRF also released subject-wise lists for HEIs in medical, pharmacy, dental, law, and architecture.

What do these rankings really mean for students? How do they help in college and university admissions? With the new academic year having just begun, does the ranking provide a clear picture of the institution you have chosen?

Business Standard helps you understand.


The NIRF engages five preliminary parameters for evaluating each educational institution: teaching and learning, weighted at 30 per cent; research and professional practice, also 30 per cent; graduation outcome, worth 20 per cent; outreach and inclusivity, 10 per cent; and perception, weighted at 10 per cent. Each of these five has more specific criteria–total publications, student-teacher ratio, support for economically and socially challenged students–that define these parameters and are similarly weighted. The NIRF lays more weight on easily quantifiable data. This is in contrast to the perception- and internationalisation-dependent global rankings.

As the NIRF explainer says, in a large higher education system like India’s, hard quantifiable data provides a more reliable basis for building a ranking matric, as compared to perception data, which can be “misleading and amenable to manipulation.”

The reliance on quantifiable data presents a result- or output-oriented approach in defining “top” colleges and universities. The ranking is helpful in evaluating institutions based on what they have achieved over the last year, like higher numbers of academic publications, better faculty-student ratio, higher or more lucrative placements, a more regionally diverse student population, etc.

Miranda House, the college, is ranked the top college for the past four years because it has managed to improve its total score. This is even though the college’s performance in individual parameter categories has varied and often gone down. For instance, Miranda’s score has gone down in both “Financial Resources and Utilisation” as well as the “Publications” matrices, among a few others. However, the college performed much better in the matrices for “Median Salary” received by students on placement, and “Regional Diversity” sub-parameters.

The second-ranked Hindu College, which climbed seven rungs from the ninth position in NIFR 2021, registered improved scores across the board. It especially showed a marked improvement in the “Publications,” “Placement and Higher Studies,” and “Outreach and Inclusion of Economically and Socially Challenged Students” sub-parameters.

Thus, a student looking to choose between the two top-placed colleges would have to research the thorough breakdown of each parameter and sub-parameters to understand how the colleges stand on the individual aspects most relevant to the student.

N Ramaswamy, KPMG’s National Leader in Education and Skill Development, said that it is worthwhile spending a few hours looking at specific parameters and comparing colleges with the help of the NIRF.

NIRF doesn’t make this process easy. A breakdown and explainer accompanying the rankings cite complex formulae used in the calculation rather spelling simply how the data translates to daily practices in the institutions it reviewed and ranked. For instance, does a higher number of publications imply institution support for mentorship, guidance, and infrastructural resources required for research publications? Similarly, how does “Outreach and Inclusion of Economically and Socially Challenged Students” translate on the ground level: reservations in hostels based on students’ financial background, meal coupons, scholarships?

The process becomes even more complicated when a student expands her search to a larger number of institutions and down to lower-ranked HEIs. It’s cumbersome to trawl through hundreds of institutions for their individual scores in each parameter, especially during the heat and hurry of the admission season. The process becomes only slightly manageable in the shorter subject rankings of NIRF, like the ones for dental, architecture, and pharmacy institutions.

The National Board of Accreditation, in charge of the research and NIRF rankings, has not replied to Business Standard’s questions around this aspect.

“A college being No 1 may not necessarily be true since it actually is a better reflection of how closely the criteria are followed and how well these are reported and reflected by the institution,” said a professor at the University of Delhi.

The professor added that it was necessary for students applying for a place based on the rankings to be alert and not be guided by a ready-made review/ranking. “While they may be opting for the best, they may miss out on a gem that either not complied or come up short in compliance despite intrinsic soundness and qualities.”

Ramaswamy too emphasised that “ranking should not be the only input based on which she [a student] can select a university.”

What is needed in NIRF

After the new National Education Policy in 2020 and the impact of pandemic-related restrictions, NIRF has included a separate sub-parameter for “Online Education” under the “Teaching, Learning, and Resources” parameter. Apart from this, the ranking has remained loyal to its usual parameters for gauging its participant HEIs. Revisions too haven’t been uniform, with the only major revisions coming in 2021 for the Research and Medical institute rankings. Are more changes necessary?

Ramaswamy said changing the parameters often is not a good idea: “If the basis changes every year, how do we know if a particular HE has been consistent or not?”

“When there is a significant external trigger, the parameters need to reflect it. Also, the credibility and veracity of data presented in NIRF should improve.

We should have a single source of data from HE institutions for Accreditation, Ranking, Compliance reporting, Funding application, etc. As for credibility, while a central review for all institutions could be expensive, time-consuming, etc., a random peer-review could be considered.”

With NIRF’s focus on “objectively quantifiable” data, one wonders if the ranking process could have had a more active role for students. Would an institution-wide Multiple-Choice-Question-type questionnaire have helped to factor in student perception on the quality of courses, infrastructural resources, diversity?

“A survey makes the whole process time-consuming and expensive,” said Ramaswamy. Implementing such a survey system is not easy. According to the All-India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE) 2019-20, there are 38.5 million students pursuing higher education in India in 1,043 universities. The sheer volume of data to be mined would be enormous. “And even after that the survey cannot include the subjective questions of all concerned. How do you define the quality of course material? How do we know what material was evaluated for the subject? Also, there will be claims and counterclaims,” the KPMG scholar said.

About students

Is there then an alternative way of incorporating student feedback? Dr Raghu Raman, Dean of Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, believes that the current perception survey that NIRF conducts with peers from the industry, can include a student component. “I think it’s a must. An HEI’s ultimate goal is to serve the students. Their feedback is very important. The National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), conducts similar student surveys, but within HEIs rather than across the board. The surveys are conducted by the institution, and the anonymous student responses are then sent back to NAAC, who then tally the results. I think a similar model can be followed, with some stratifications and tweaks so that we have responses from a multidisciplinary pool of students,” he said.

Dr Raman, who has spent close to seven years with global ranking agencies like Times Higher Education index and QS, said NIRF is unmatched not only in the depth and breadth of its research but also in transparency. He suggested expanding three broad areas: internationalization, Multidisciplinary Education and Research Universities (MERU), and entrepreneurship.

Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, too, has emphasised the inclusion of a section on innovation and entrepreneurship. The NEP’s emphasis on MERUs, like Amrita Vidyapeetham, also demands the ranking includes an evaluation of the participant HIE’s scope and strength as a MERU.

Finally, if we are to attract international students for our HEIs, the NIRF should also embrace internationalisation as a salient parameter, Dr Raman said. This parameter could count for the mobility of our students and faculty abroad, collaborative projects, grants, and papers. This would clearly indicate which Indian universities are most prepared to welcome and nurture the ceducation and research of international students.

The DU professor advised caution in this approach, saying: “data is not everything. The ranking system seems to suggest it is.”

“While (the present) criteria are all very well, these can in no way encapsulate all that is important in the process of imparting education. It is more important to reckon the infrastructure that an institution has to offer, the content and quality of the course material, and the best pedagogical practices. Even student surveys will not supply a final solution since these too are mired in extra-academic limitations.”

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