Rankings: Everything is not above board

livemint.com | Premchand Palety

The ranking season is on. It’s the methodology and integrity issues that differentiate different ranking surveys. The users of such a survey should not follow it blindly. They should first understand the methodology and the parameters of assessment of the survey. If a research agency uses the same methodology for ranking business schools as it uses to assess brand perception of soaps or impact of advertisements on target audience, then the whole exercise is a joke.

If a business school that has a history of depending mainly on visiting faculty is consistently ranked among the top five, or a B-school that dares to lie openly is ranked above some of the good institutes, it only gives credence to rumours that some rankings are auctioned. Such rumours are often exaggerated, but being an insider, I can say that some B-schools are always more than willing to strike murky deals.

About the B-school survey we do, I have already mentioned the prime objective and methodology in my earlier columns. Some B-schools do take this exercise seriously, and always make efforts to improve their ranking in true measure. There are also B-schools that are always on the lookout for short cuts.

In the past nine years that I have been conducting ranking surveys, such B-schools did try to influence me, especially in the initial years.

One of the common myths associated with rankings, at least in our case, is about advertisements. We have always maintained that if institutes advertise in the issue carrying the rankings, they do it to effectively reach their target audience, and in no way does it influence the ranking.

But somehow, in some quarters, there still is a perception that advertisements have an impact on ranking. Even some B-schools like to believe that.

Once, the advertising department person of a magazine introduced me to an “edupreneur” who offered to advertise generously, provided we showed his institute in “good light”.

Then there were some agents of B-schools who would come to my office unannounced to strike a “deal”. Such B-schools have given up on me now and don’t participate in our surveys.

I have spoken to different directors and main promoters of B-schools about the issue of corruption in rankings. Some of them have confirmed that corrupt practices are followed by some agencies and publications. I was always surprised by the Top 10 ranking of an otherwise average B-school that used to participate in only one survey, by a business magazine.An insider from that school told to me the real reason. There was a major financial deal, amounting to several lakhs of rupees, struck between the CEO of the B-school and the agency head.

In government B-schools, the issues are different, especially for some of those which are resting on past laurels or riding piggyback on the brand name of the Indian Institutes of Management and the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). Some of them are not doing well in terms of faculty, research and industry interface, the parameters that get high weightage in our survey. Some of their faculty neither teach effectively nor do research. They are reluctant to participate in ranking surveys as they fear being exposed. They sometimes put the condition that they wil participate if only they are assured of a good rank.Sometimes their students fill the questionnaire, overstating facts for a better rank. We are now using the right to information (RTI) to ferret out data.

A few days back, I received a phone call from the department of management of one of the IITs saying it would participate in the survey only if I withdraw my RTI application. The faculty member who contacted me was bold enough to say that the institute will delay giving full information if I used RTI. Maybe they think twisting facts would be difficult and create legal difficulties for them, if the RTI route is used.

I often tell students who seek my advice for admissions to use rankings as a preliminary filter to shortlist B-schools. Since it is a major career decision they should also visit different campuses and talk to existing students, and do their own research.

Ranking agencies on their part need to be careful about their methodology and staff involved in the exercise. A good ranking always helps in drawing attention for a business school. If it matches the ground reality, then it helps in boosting its image among relevant stakeholders.

However, if the ranking is divorced from reality, it may mislead some stakeholders, but ultimately the ranking agency and the publication lose credibility. Influencing ranking is only one among the corrupt practices that some B-schools indulge in.

Be it admissions or placements or managing the institute, many of our B-schools are not bereft of fraudulent practices. I will write more about that in my next column.

Premchand Palety is director of Centre for Forecasting and Research (C fore) in New Delhi, from where he keeps a close eye on India’s business schools.