NIRF Ranking: Making it robust, relevant and appropriate
Prof. Sowmyanarayanan Sadagopan, 05 Apr 2019
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As with any ranking framework, NIRF is continuously evolving and offering opportunities for improvement. Here’s a look at possible areas of improvement by Prof. Sowmyanarayanan Sadagopan, Director, IIIT-Bangalore/


National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) is the first un-biased ranking of higher education institutions in India, undertaken by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). Based on an Expert Committee recommendation of 2015, three annual rankings were made (2016, 2017 & 2018); the ranking for 2019 is underway.The ranking is based on five core criteria, namely: Teaching/Learning; Research /professional practice; Graduation outcome; Outreach/ inclusivity; and Perception.


Objective in nature 

Unlike many rankings undertaken mostly by media houses, NIRF is data-based and attempts to be as objective as possible. This is of value, considering the fact that until a few years back, many institute heads used to get a request from some of the media agencies for a fee running into several lakhs of rupees with an attachment that showed the front page of the magazine issue with the specific Institute ranked as No 1! With very large number of institutes in the country, ranking has become a difficult and often controversial exercise. NIRF too has its share of controversies, more due to inaccuracy of data than a flawed methodology.


Making ranking more robust

Three areas that need immediate attention are data collection, analysis and  visualization.

DATA COLLECTION: A possible area that can be immediately addressed is a move towards automation of data gathering. Just as Google “crawls” data from websites or Reserve Bank of India consolidates data kept by the individual banks in XML format (thanks to core banking), MHRD can “crawl” data with clearly identified meta-data and data structures for storing the data in an ongoing basis; in turn, there will not be a need to “collect” data from thousands of individual institutions typically during September of every year.

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The current portal also can be significantly improved in terms of “user interaction”, so that institutes need not be burdened with dozens of hours of “data upload”. Since much of the data originates from other wings of MHRD itself – for example, AICTE approved enrolment are already available with MHRD – there can be a dramatic reduction in data upload. 


With the reduced load, institutions can focus on “quality” of data, which in turn will lead to more reliable analysis. For good institutes, this leads to tedium of work due to duplicate work; for some of the “not so good” institutes, it is an area of unfair data fudging! In today’s world that too in India, well-known for its IT expertise, one would expect this as the bare minimum.

IMPROVEMENT IN DATA ANALYSIS: With India emerging as “analytics” capital of the world, one would expect far deeper analysis of data than mere computation of weighted averages and a rank order. “Deep dive” analysis, location of interesting clusters, temporal analysis of data (with the fourth edition expected in 2019, at least the 2020 edition can analyse the 5-year trend) are all things that come to one’s mind immediately. With the expertise available in India, one could do a far detailed data analysis than what is currently done.


DATA VISUALIZATION: Visualization of data through meaningful charts has evolved considerably. Since institutional ranking has policy implications at very different levels – MHRD/UGC and other regulatory bodies, University/College administrators, academic bodies like Senate and Heads of Departments – such visualization will dramatically improve the utility. Even end consumers like employers, prospective students and their parents will benefit from insightful visual reports than a mere number in the form of a rank!


Making NIRF rank more relevant

India is a vast country of 1.3 billion population with thousands of institutions of higher learning. The diversity of the country, in terms of geography, economic growth, languages, school systems (CBSE, State Boards, for example) and the rising aspirations of the middle class puts a variety of demands on the higher education system. Because of the success of  Centrally funded Technical Institutes (CFTIs) - IIT/IIM/NIT/IIIT/ IISc/IISER – that enjoy access to large funds, autonomy, centralized admissions based on common entrance examinations etc.,  and the involvement of experts mostly from such institutes in the ranking exercise – from the formulation of the ranking methodology to the actual processing of data – the ranking becomes less relevant for a very large number of institutions, more so from the private sector. 

Expenditure, built-up space, fee, grants, student/faculty count, salary, placement etc., can be measured. The subtle act of creating and sustaining an academic culture of excellence, peer-reviewed evolution of pedagogy, scholarships across sciences, humanities, professions like architecture, medicine are things that are not easily measured; equally, they take years, if not decades to evolve.


With annual ranking, one is likely to skew the focus into short-term thinking, the way corporations are suffering from short-term thinking introduced by quarterly performance results that too on an inherently “emotional” stock market! Issues like clustering institutions based on student size, scope of the departments must find a place.


Unlike Europe and Americas where universities are multidisciplinary with Schools of Arts, Sciences, Humanities and often Architecture, Medicine, most of the Indian institutions are unitary in nature. This makes a further skew in the ranking. May be one should shy away from a simple number, however sophisticated, but provide a band – the way grading systems evolved from a number to a letter Grade and CGPA. 


Making NIRF rank more appropriate 

How can NIRF rank help a new and upcoming institute, may be in private sector but with “public ethos” (valuing scholarship, merit-based admission of students, merit-based promotion of faculty,  “management” keeping an “arm’s length” from the day-to-day running of the institution and its internal funds) in creating an equally promising institute like IISc in the next 20 years? 

How can an institute in rural India that focuses on topics of local importance -– technologies for agriculture, sustainability, special needs of local people by way of food, medicine, lifestyle -- in an inter-disciplinary way with much smaller funds, but with much higher impact, get a higher ranking, in spite of the fact that its students may not get fancy salaries or 100 percent placement? 


These are just “food for thought”. NIRF is doing an admirable job of unbiased and data-based ranking. What is needed is to improve an already high-quality system to become even better, considering the diversity of India and its education system   


 Author_pD7VkiV

Prof. Sowmyanarayanan Sadagopan,

Director, IIIT-Bangalore


#Views are personal. Reach author at [email protected]

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