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Denationalised Elites and Their Search for Global Ranking of Higher Education Institutions

India’s denationalised intellectuals may help us realise the common concerns of the West and India. But they displace India’s historical universals. Their search for the global ranking of higher educational institutions is devoid of moral and intellectual concerns for a national-popular collective will.

India’s denationalised elites1 seek global standards in higher education institutions (HEIs) and follow a “cosm­opolitan” view alienated from any res­ponsibility towards a “national-popular” will.2 They reiterate that India’s HEIs need to follow publication standards of “the top 100 global universities.” Currently, India’s 35 HEIs figure in the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) global ranking list and the older Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are within the first 400, whereas the top seven central universities are in the range of 500 to 1,200 ranks in the QS ranking. India Today rep­orts, “Only 22 Indian higher institutions found a place amongst the top 1,000 universities of the world.”3 Over the last five years, their rankings have remained unchanged. They continue to get scored poorly under the “faculty–student ratio,” even though they have improved their “academic reputation” and “citati­ons” marginally, which will be exami­ned later in the article. As the faculty–student ratio is critically weak in India, no Indian university appears in the top 100 ranks, the report adds.

However, India’s cosmopolitan elites are in great hurry to catch up with global standards as soon as possible. They argue that India’s search for global peers should benefit all students to make informed choices in their higher education. Their ideals of catching up with global standards, worthy as it may be, are empty rhetoric as their pathways do not add­ress the question of the limited choices available for most students and teachers in India. The purpose here is to explain the substantial differences between ­India and Western countries and the ­neglect of education by all political regi­mes since independence.

Differences in University Structure

Let us begin by examining the case of the world’s best universities. The best universities in the world are learner-driven bodies, whereas India’s top HEIs are teacher-driven institutions. If we do not account for this difference, superficial comparisons will further multiply. What does it mean? In the West, under the undergraduate programme, with enr­olment of 200 to 250 students in a class, nearly 50% of lectures are addressed by teachers and 50% are driven by the student seminar presentations in the general courses taught during the first three years. When general courses are taught in the West, teachers are complemented by a tutorial system of teaching assistants employed for 130 hours per semester (four hours a week). The teaching assistants are employed from among a pool of retired college professors and doctoral students. However, during the fourth year of the undergraduate program­me, seminar courses are offered by students with presentations and research assignments. Under postgraduate pro­gram­mes, courses are offered in the seminar mode, comprising student presentations, with not more than 25 students in each course. Even in the general courses during the undergraduate programme, the teaching inv­olves 50% to 60% of classes. In India, however, the teaching in a lecture mode is nearly 100% for both undergraduate and postgraduate courses, which prevent a balanced growth of research culture among teachers as well as students.

One also needs to grapple with the specific historical contexts of education in India where education, especially hig­her education, has been the domain of the elite. Higher education remains a daunting and alienating space. Many students from marginalised communities—many of whom are first-generation learners—aspire for higher education. A lot has been written on this by the Dalit intellectuals and activists. In such conditions, an accessible and nurturing pedagogic atmosphere is a historical necessity. The lecturing method adopted by most teachers, while it runs the risk of being dull and top-down, is often also a res­ponse to the fact that many students require a high level of mediation given the difficulty of the English language, the alienating concepts that fail to connect with lived contexts, and lack of necessary cultural capital. The good teachers do much more than teaching and also take up mentoring. The ranking index does not consider the massive teaching load/responsibility carried out by most teachers in HEIs in India. In the West, teaching and research activities are integrated so that teachers do research-­oriented teaching through seminar courses initiated from the undergraduate programme itself. In India, on the other hand, teachers routinely teach courses because it is part of their teaching responsibility, and a course rarely falls directly within their area of rese­arch.

Further, when they do research, they hardly ever get the opportunity to teach courses relevant to their areas of research. If India’s policymakers do not follow learning methods, set up educational resources, tutorial systems and integrate teaching and research as in Western universities, any comparison between the two education systems rem­ains superfluous. In fact, the ranking index needs to take cognisance of an important additional factor when it comes to the Indian context—the mentoring that several teachers carry out by offering the extra support that is so ess­ential for students from non-metropolitan and marginalised backgrounds. With HEIs lacking fruitful and empathetic institutional mechanisms to address student grievances, well-meaning teachers address the concerns, anxieties, and the alienation faced by students through inf­ormal networks. Let us not forget that it is a demanding and time-consuming work.

Against this backdrop, there is a signi­ficant flaw in the denationalised elite’s assumptions about global standards. They claim that theory is transnational and therefore there is no meaning in discussing about national/regional/local standards, which is assumed to be non-theoretical/non-rational. However, a good social theory cannot be evolved in postcolonial countries by remaining insensitive to national/regional/local people’s questions. It needs to be created from within, not from outside. A transnational theory presupposes transcending a nation people’s will. It is a scientistic pretension to claim that a theory may be adopted across national borders freely. We cannot mimic Western thought in the name of globalisation. It is worth recalling M K Gandhi (1999a: 215) who had said that

I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I ­refuse to be blown off my feet by any.

Even B R Ambedkar, a fierce critic of Gandhi, shares this idea when he says that the methods of modern constitutional democracy can be traced back to the contributions of the Buddhist Sangha in ancient India (Yadav 2000). If Indians do not want to get blown off their feet in pursuit of “transnational” theories, they must be grounded in national/regional history, and their views must emanate from national people’s will. A good social theory in a postcolony is necessarily int­ernational rather than transnational. It needs to be developed from within the core of Indian history and, in many cases, from regional histories by assimilating “common universal” concepts and by neg­ating “historical universal” concepts of a transnational theory. An international theory applicable in India needs to combine “common” with “historical” universals, which may be developed by studying our national people’s history in depth.4 From a transnational theory, we may learn “common” universals. However, the denationalised academicians mistakenly think that Western “historical” universals are also applicable in India. Thus, a transnational theory bor­ro­wed from the West displaces historical universals of India.

The Consumer Rights Model

The denationalised intellectuals claim that HEIs can be assessed by using a consumer rights model. Students are consumers and are ultimately sovereign in choosing an education path offered by the HEIs in India. It sounds like a student-friendly claim but is not so. They claim that university rankings “empower” students, whereas only privileged students with an inherited cultural capital may gather information through ranking data to pick a course/programme offe­red by a particular university. A substantial amo­unt of research suggests that the student-
as-consumer model does not ­ultimately empower the student, even those from privileged backgrounds and even in the context of Western countries. According to Rebecca Hovey (2004: 248), director at the Lewis Global Studies Center at Smith College,

knowledge is not an authoritative body of information and frameworks to be delivered to students but emerges through an acquisition or learning process in which students come to see the world in their own life expe­riences.

Janice A Newson (2004: 230), York University, Toronto, points out that when students are seen as customers or “auto­no­mous choosers,” they are simultaneously redu­ced to “receivers” of a service, not as co-creators of a teaching–learning community.

In the Indian context, however, many students from marginalised backgro­unds—first-generation learners—enter the public HEI aspiring for social mobility. As critical pedagogy and research have demonstrated, the teaching–learning exp­erience must be inclusive and transformative to generate the required self-worth and confidence in such students to take on the challenges of the real world. While the field of public education is ­being rapidly marketised, it might help to recall and re-engage with the theorisations of education that have emer­ged through grounded engagements with the Indian context of educational inequalities. In 1881, Jotirao Phule (2000: 200), in his deposition before the Education Commission (also known as the Hunter Commission), pointed out how the benefits of Western education have reached only a handful of the elite in India—excluding the masses, especially those from the lower castes, who are still caught in dehumanised social and occupational conditions. Phule makes a strong plea for the “education of the masses.” To achieve this goal, he proposes that teachers from Shudra castes be trai­ned and appointed in primary schools.

While Phule is speaking about primary education in this deposition about 140 years back, his ideas remain critical in rethinking higher education in the present moment. A decontextualised adoption of the h-index, pitting teacher against teacher in a ruthless spirit of competition, would render the process of teaching into an esoteric, alienating activity, disconnected from the historical circum­stances of students. Phule pushes for a radical pedagogic transformation—one that can only be achieved when students from the cultivating classes/excluded communities feel incl­uded, valued, and motivated to learn. This, for Phule, can only be achieved if teachers from these communities are rec­ruited, trained, and incentivised bec­ause they would be able to relate to the lifeworlds of the students they teach. Thus, the process of teaching–learning will be a dynamic one; classroom learning would not be distanced from the worlds of agriculture and labour, and from the process of creating organic int­ellectuals from the oppressed people.

This then leads us to a factor that is notably absent in the denationalised model—the principle of social justice and equity. It remains insensitive to the plural background of students and educational inequalities based on caste, class, gender, region, language, and other relevant distinctions. Its monocultural approach affects a teacher’s sensitivity and teaching skills.

The ardent advocates of the consumer model ignore the fact that educationists in the West, especially those committed to a radical, transformative pedagogy, have remained deeply critical of the neoliberal model of education, expressing apprehension that it would further exclude and disenfranchise students from poor, non-White backgrounds. According to Henry Giroux (1999: 143), a fou­nding theorist of critical pedagogy in the United States (US), this model results in a severe deskilling of the teacher:

There can be no recognition in this model of educational reform that students come from different backgrounds, bring div­erse cultural experiences, and relate to the world in different ways. There is no sense in this approach of what it means for teachers to make knowledge meaningful, critical and transformative.

Giroux (1999: 144) laments the shift in education where pedagogical importance is no longer placed on having teachers begin with “where people are and how they actually live their lives.” If we reflect on Giroux’s critique of neo-liberal education, we discover a connecting theme with what Phule had said about a 140 years back in a very different context—an education that is monolithic and distanced cannot be relevant or legible to students from subaltern backgrounds. Giroux (1999: 144) spe­aks of how the corporate model of teaching reduces educational exchange into financial exchange:

Yet teachers who take this approach cannot be expected to standardise, routinise, or reduce learning to a prepackaged curriculum, because this takes seriously the ability of teachers to theorise, contextualise, and honor the diverse lives of their students.

The Search for Global Standards

Insofar as the QS global ranking is concerned, the following parameters may be noted: academic reputation (includes peer-reviewed publications), faculty–student ratio, citations per faculty, employer’s reputation (based on the feedback of graduate employers), international student ratio, and international staff ratio. Needless to say, the academic reputation depends on the faculty–student ratio and consists of their hard work. A proper faculty–student ratio is a necessary condition for healthy performance in the peer-reviewed publications. In a total of 100 weightage, the end pro­duct of “academic reputation” has a weightage of 40, whereas its primary cause of “faculty–student ratio” gets a weightage of 20. The rest of 40 weightage is distributed across parameters as follows: citations have 20, employer reputation 10, international student ratio five, and international staff ratio five. It may be worth noting that the University Grants Commission’s (UGC) semi-feudal policy of the re-employment of retired professors blo­cks new recruitment in faculty posts for five years and denies opportunities for students seeking PhD admissions. In the US, lifetime professors supervise students, whereas in India, the reti­red professors may get an extension for five years and are honoured to be free from research supervision during this period. Moreover, professors serving the last three years of their career are exe­mpted from research supervision. These twin privileges extended by the UGC to the senior teachers reduce the faculty–student ratio, the prime mover of rankings of a university. The self-indulgent transnational perspective is paradoxically neo-liberal, feudal, and suffers from the bias of gerontocracy.

Moreover, as the faculty–student ratio is crucial for publications, it depends on the proactive policies of adequate funding, faculty recruitment and student admi­ssion pursued by the HEIs. The HEIs in India have a weak record in this matter. All regimes of different political parties, including the current regime, are guilty of not allotting 6% of the gross domestic product (GDP) to education, which is recommended by all national committees. At least 6% of GDP should be invested in India’s public education. With huge backlogs in faculty recruitment reported across India due to the criminal negligence of policymakers and a weak leadership in the universities, the faculty–student ratio is weak, and the strength of research students is weakened further. The best universities in the world have an incomparably higher faculty–student ratio due to the proactive policies followed by HEIs with enormous care for even housing needs of newly app­ointed faculty members. Institutional capacities in the West in providing reso­urces (from reprography to the library) needed by their active faculty are higher. Such proactive institutional support reduces tensions and time consumed by the faculty.

However, their counterparts in India are critically handicapped by these institutional facilities. The conformist thinking of the denationalised elites ignores the supply side of the HEIs and considers the end products only. One should not emulate effects without examining causes. To do so is to offer a weak policy anal­ysis. Thus, their comparison between these two educational systems is unrea­listic. While we agree to move ahead, we should do so according to our capacities and not as per the capacities in Western universities.


1 M K Gandhi (1999b: 207) defines denationalised beings as the ones who scorn at the sentiments of masses.

2 The concept of “national-popular,” borrowed from Antonio Gramsci (1971: 130–33; 421; n 65), is essentially a cultural concept which refers to a combination of national questions and concerns of urban/rural masses. See Gramsci.

3 See India Today

4 Common universals are ideas present across time and space. For example, the concept of class may have common boundaries found across histories. But historical universals refer to the core meanings inherent in a concept in a specific space/time. Slaves, serfs, proletariat, Dalits, and so on are class relations of a specific time/space. Class manifests with enclosures under caste in premodern India, as stated by Ambedkar. Common universals may manifest differently in different space/time. They are historical universals. Sudipta Kaviraj makes a similar distinction between empty and filled concepts. Empty concepts refer to boundary ideas commonly found in all epochs whereas filled concepts refer to core ideas of each ­epoch. Class is an empty concept, but caste is a filled concept of class relations in premodern India. For further details, see Kaviraj (1989: 140–42).


Gandhi, M K (1999a): Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol 23, Wardha: Gandhi Sevagram Ashram.

— (1999b): Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol 42, Wardha: Gandhi Sevagram Ashram.

Giroux, Henry A (1999): “Schools for Sale: Public Education, Corporate Culture, and the Citizen Consumer,” Education Forum, Vol 63, No 2, pp 140–49.

Gramsci, Antonio (1971): Selections from the Prison Notebooks, New York: international Publishers.

Hovey, Rebecca (2004): “Critical Pedagogy and International Studies: Reconstructing Knowledge through Dialogue with the Subaltern,” International Relations, Vol 18, No 2, pp 241–54.

Kaviraj, Sudipta (1989): “On Political Explanation in Marxism,” Krishna Bharadwaj and Sudipta Kaviraj (eds), Perspectives on Capitalism: Marx, Keynes, Schumpeter and Weber, New Delhi: Sage.

Newson, Janice A (2004): “Disrupting the ‘Student as Consumer’ Model: The New Emancipatory Project,” International Relations, Vol 18, No 2, pp 227–39.

Phule, Jotirao (2000): “Memorial Addressed to the Education Commission,” G P Deshpande (ed), Selected Writings of Jotirao Phule, New Delhi: Leftword Books.

Yadav, K C (2000): “Dangers to Indian Democracy: Dr Ambedkar’s Warning,” K C Yadav (ed), From Periphery to Centre Stage: Ambedkar, Ambedkarism and Dalit Future, Delhi: Manohar.



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Updated On : 9th Jul, 2022
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