Revised on 27th May 2015
Author: Sanjay Goel, http://in.linkedin.com/in/sgoel
Every year, at the admission time, the school leaving students and their parents are engaged in making very important decisions about selecting the program of education as well as the institute for the student. This decision making is often driven by country-wide waves rather than a well considered reasoning process wrt the concerned student. Interestingly, even professionally qualified parents with strong socio-economic status in the society also seem to take the so called safer option of riding these waves. The only seriously asked questions in this decision making usually relate to few peripheral factors like placement options, pay package, media rating, infrastructure, etc. The core factors like candidate’s aptitude, curriculum, quality of faculty, research, projects, examination system, library, etc., are either not considered or not given enough importance in this decision making.
The Criteria Used by Popular University Ranking Systems:
Media reported university/institute ranking are one of top influencing factors in this decision making. The university rankings by different agencies follow different yardsticks. In India, every year India Today, Dataquest, and Outlook come out with their own rank list. India Today  evaluates universities on six parameters – reputation of the university, quality of academic input, quality of faculty, research publications/reports/projects, infrastructure, placement opportunities and enrolment for higher education. These parameters are evaluated using peer’s perception (40% weight) and college provided data (60% weight) for this purpose. Outlook assigns 30% points to students’ selection process, 40% points to academic excellence, 17% points to placements & industry links, and 13% points to infrastructure . Dataquest-IDC survey assigns 40% points to placements, 25% points to recruiters’ perception, 15% points to intellectual property, 10% points to industry interface, and 10% points to infrastructure .
Since 2003, Shanghai Jiao Tong University annually compiles Academic Ranking of World’s Universities (ARWU), a ranked list of the top 500 universities of the world. This ranking is based on several performance indicators of academic or research performance, and gives 75% points to the quality of research in terms of number of highly cited researchers, number of cited papers, and number of papers published in top journals. The remaining 25% is points are decided either on the basis on research fund (for engineering universities) or on the basis of Nobel and Filed medals won by faculty and alumni (for all other categories) . Among Indian universities, only two Indian universities- IISc, Banguluru and IIT Kharagpur, are included in this list of top 500 universities with none being in the top 300 universities.
The Times Higher Education also ranks the world’s top universities since 2004. Since 2010, THES  gives 55% points to research indicators (citation, volume, research income and reputation), 25% points to institutional indicators (teaching excellence, number of Phd awards per academic, number of undergraduate students per academic, ratio of PhDs/undergraduate awarded, income per academic) and 10% points to international diversity at the university (international faculty, students, and co-authors). None of Indian universities has found a place in the 2010/11 ranking of top 200 universities.
Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) earlier produced the rankings in partnership with Times Higher Education during 2004 and 2009. Afterwards, the Times Higher Education parted away and QS continued to create their ranking . The indicators used by QS are academic peer review (40%), faculty student ratio (20%), citation per faculty (20%), recruiter review (10%), and international orientation (10%). As per 2010/11 ranking, there are only 11 Indian universities in the top 650 universities with best rank of 187 assigned to IIT Mumbai.
Interestingly, the ranking criteria of Indian agencies do not have many similarities with the ranking criteria used by above mentioned international agencies. It can also be noted that all Indian rankings are highly skewed in favour of peripheral factors like placement, recruiters’ perception, infrastructure, admission process, industry links, etc. It’s time for some Indian agency to carry out a more academically oriented ranking of Indian institutes and universities and give more emphasis on core factors.
SPINE project’s findings:
Successful Practices in International Engineering Education (SPINE)  is a benchmark study focusing on the analysis of successful practices in engineering education in ten leading European and U.S. universities including MIT, CMU, and ETH Zurich . In the SPINE project, 543 professors of these universities, 1372 engineers and 145 managers of US and European companies were questioned. Researchers identified and assessed the importance of fifty-one parameters of engineering education. They studied twenty-one parameters related to aspects of reputation of engineering universities, and criteria for quality of education.
Aspects of reputation of engineering universities include parameters of quality of research, quality of program, success of graduates from that university, publications by professor, contacts/collaboration with industry, personal contact with students/graduates, merits/awards for professors, ranking by media, and continuing education program.
Criteria for quality of education comprise of quality of professors/teaching staff, quality of infrastructure, up-to-date curriculum, specialization/depth of education, employment opportunities for graduates, breadth of education, recruitment and admission process, inter-disciplinarity of education, cooperation with industry, relevance of education with practices in industry, selection process during study, and internationality (professors, students).
Some of the main findings of SPINE project with respect to aspects of reputation of engineering universities, and criteria for quality of education are as follows:
- Respondents of all three categories consider quality of research, quality of program, success of graduates, and contact/collaboration with industry as very important aspects of reputation of engineering universities. However, the opinions of professors, and working engineers and managers exhibit sharp differences about which aspect is rated as most important. While professors grant most importance to quality of research, and the engineers consider quality of program to be most important, the managers give equal importance to quality of research, quality of program, contacts/collaboration with industry, and success of graduates from that university.
- While professors consider other aspects such as publications by professors, awards to professors, and personal contact with students as important aspects of reputation of engineering universities, much importance is not assigned to these parameters by engineers and managers.
- All respondents consider quality of professors/teaching staff, followed by quality of infrastructure, and up-to-date curriculum as very important criteria of quality of education. Engineers and managers also included relevance of education to practices in industry, and cooperation with industry in this category.
- Professors assigned higher importance to admission process than engineers and managers.
Proposed questions that admission seeking students and parents can ask
Since ancient times, the great Indian thinkers have always looked at education as the means for enlightenment through intellectual and moral development. Interestingly, even the greatest western thinkers of higher education like John Henry Newman (1850’s), Franklin Bobbit (1940’s), and Martha Nussbaum (contemporary) have consistently emphasized that university education is primarily aimed at developing individuals’ intellect and raise the intellectual tone of society .
Peripheral factors like immediate placements, etc., cannot continue to be its prime motivators for long. The admission seekers and their parents have to look at higher education as training for life and for the last job rather than the first job. I am hereby proposing some questions that can help the parents and prospective students to seek clarifications about the core factors related the program of study and institute.
- What are the goals and distinguishing characteristics of the curriculum? How does the curriculum address the need of broad based multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary education? How is industry internship and service learning (e.g., social internship etc.) incorporated in the curriculum? What kind of flexibility and choices are offered to the students in deciding the specific courses (subjects)?
- How does the curriculum aim to engage the student with larger and deeper questions related to life, society, profession, business ecosystem, and sustainable development?
- What is the process of curriculum revision? When was the curriculum revised last time? What is the process of revising the syllabus of specific courses listed in the curriculum? How many specific courses listed in the curriculum have been revised in the last three years? How many new courses have been added to the curriculum in the last three years?
- What kind of text and reference books are used in courses? Are students necessarily engaged with world class books by internationally reputed authors or some low quality local books dominate student racks?
- How much emphasis is given to regular and continuous assessment as compared to end of term exams? How often are the exams oriented towards assessing ‘attention to detail’ as well as analytical, critical, creative, reflective, and holistic thinking rather than routine memorization? It has been noticed that often the exams test only lower order cognitive skills and a very large part of higher education in India fails to frequently engage and assess the students at higher cognitive levels   .
- What is the nature of in-class and out-of-class academic engagement? How rigorous is this engagement? Typically, for how many hours per week are students required to be busy with their studies, hands-on-practice, assignments, projects, and research? In this engagement, how much importance is given to laboratory, workshop, design studio, group work, field work, and interdisciplinary work? For full time students, a good system must ensure an average work load of approx. 50 – 60 hrs. of weekly engagement in terms of lectures, tutorial, seminars, laboratories, project work, assignments, literature survey, field work, and self study, etc., .
- What kind of projects do students carry out? Are these projects usually copied from the senior batches or students are really required to do some hard work? In the last three years, how many students showcased/presented their work in reputed professional conferences/exhibitions/shows? How many students published papers have appeared in reputed academic/trade journals?
- How many faculty members are there in the core discipline of the program? What is the student faculty ratio in the core discipline? What is the typical class size? What is the average weekly teaching load of faculty? Do they have sufficient time to interact with individual students?
- What are the qualification, teaching experience, non-teaching professional experience, and interdisciplinary exposure of the faculty members of core discipline? Where did they study and work before? What kind of participation do they have in professional and alumni networks? What kind of professional, research, writing, consultancy, or social interests do they pursue?
- How many guest faculty members from academia and professional world interacted with students in the last three years?
- How much annual budget is available to the core laboratories for upgradation and also for student projects?
- What kind of student access is provided to the digital libraries of core and other disciplines?
- What faculty and student exchange programs are effectively operational? What is duration and nature of these programs? What fraction of faculty and students have benefitted from such programs in last three years?
- In the last three years, how many students have won some international or national awards related to the core discipline?
- In the last three years, how many students have gone for further studies at world’s top 200 universities/institutes wrt the core discipline?
- What kinds of opportunities are available to students for extra-curricular engagement? Do these engagements expand their aesthetic sensitiveness, creativity, self expression, social responsibility, and leadership abilities? How are extra-curricular activities integrated with their core discipline?
- What kind of ecosystem, encouragement, and support is provided to students for creation their own startups? How many students and alumni have created their own startups in the last 3 years?
In the last decade, placement seem to have become the most popular and sometimes even the sole factor for assessing the quality of education. When it comes to reporting educational news, a large section of popular media finds placement related news to be the most worthy positive aspect of campuses. A large number of institutes have started paying over-attention to the placement activity. In my view, the present highly skewed trend is even more harmful than those days when campus placement was of no or very little concern to the educational institutes, till 1980’s. With growing economy, there is no dearth of jobs in some sectors. Employers’ entry level manpower needs are so large that many of them often do not even bother to look at the quality of education. And this is perfectly fine with respect to the nature of the work assigned to most freshers at many companies. It is not intellectually very demanding or challenging and hence it does not require deep technical knowledge. Often an overall pleasing personality with potential to remain disciplined and learn on job are sufficient criteria for selection. For example, for the last several year, each of the major IT service company is recruiting tens of thousands of freshers. Obviously their needs cannot be fulfilled by few colleges. Hence, they have to recruit in large numbers at hundreds of colleges all over the country. Much better quality jobs are available in smaller companies (https://goelsan.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/small-size-indian-it-company-vs-large-size-it-service-mnc-comparion-of-competency-expectations-of/). Hence, instead of relying on the number of the students selected by large size IT services companies, the quality of colleges should be assessed by how well do recently grown and upcoming startups receive their students.
In the euphoria of campus placement, it usually goes unnoticed that because of huge manpower needs, many of these large companies have no option but to recruit hundreds of students even from many such colleges that spend less than Rs. 10 lakh every year on their library. To differentiate such colleges from really good ones on the basis of this single core parameter itself, it may be noted that many good institutes spend around 50 lakh or more per year on library itself. Similarly, there are striking differences in different kinds of colleges in terms of other core parameters. Hence, in these times of growing business and good job opportunities in some sectors, the admission seeking students and their parents should not consider campus placement as the only and a very reliable/sustainable measure of the quality of education. 100% or near 100% placement by a college in such companies is no more a big deal. They need to look at the core factors to reliably assess the quality of education.
I am sure that asking some of the above listed questions will help the admission seeking students and their parents to focus on the core factors at the time of such a crucial decision making. Demanding and inquisitive students and parents will also create the required stimulus for the education community to reflect and respond with required improvements in our system.
 Christian Bodmer, Andrea Leu, Lukas Mira, Heinz Rütter (2002), SPINE: Successful Practices in International Engineering Education.
 Sanjay Goel, What is high about higher education: Examining engineering education through Bloom’s taxonomy, The National Teaching & Learning Forum, Vol. 13, pp 1-5, Number 4, 2004.
 Sanjay Goel and Nalin Sharda, What do engineers want? Examining engineering education through Bloom’s taxonomy, Proceedings of 15th Annual AAEE Conference, pp173-185, 2004. Presentation is available at http://slidesha.re/guMBDP.