Metric Fixation: Necessary Evil?
Whenever we remember the 2011 ICC World Cup this sentence reverberates in our ears “Dhoni finishes off in style and the party begins”. Whenever the 2007 ICC t20 World Cup is mentioned we remember the last ball of Joginder Sharma. Whenever we talk about great cricketers India has produced, Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni cross our minds. But we often forget the man who played a key role in those two triumphs; Gautam Gambhir.
Most of us are obsessed with stats and rankings and in a way we are not wrong. Stats reveal a great deal about the impact of the individual or institution. They reveal why they are/were the “best” in the business. It helps us to objectively assess them and form a better opinion. But is that it? Do they give us the complete picture? If it was not for Gambhir’s 75, Joginder Sharma would not have a chance to show off his heroics. Similarly, it was his 97 which provided the platform for Dhoni to “finish off in style”. But we hardly bring that up during our chai pe charcha discussions.
This obsession with numbers is even more evident in the institutions of higher education where we often think a better rank automatically qualifies to be a better institution. This is more often than not true when we look at QS ranking, THE ranking, NIRF ranking, etc. But when I see Indian institutions or on a global scale Asian universities lacking behind their western counterparts, I tend to question the very methodology of these rankings. Considering that Japan is rightly called the technology hub of the world, China being the producer of the most number of patents in the world and India producing a large number of corporates and technocrats who are leading some of the biggest companies in the world, it feels rather strange that they lack proper higher education institutes.
Take the case of QS ranking, its parameters include academic peer review, faculty/student ratio, citations per faculty, employer reputation, international faculty ratio, and international student ratio. Most Asian universities generally lack international faculty and student due to language constraints, strict no-foreign policy in some states, etc. Also being newer institutions, they generally lack the legacy of Oxford or Harvard which lowers their general appeal for international students. In India, unlike western institutes where various specializations work under a single roof, we have institutions like IITs for technology, IIMs for management, AIIMS for medicine which tends to lower the student intake and thus citations per faculty is significantly reduced, another key factor in the ranking where their western counterparts hold an advantage. We also have various institutions that cater specifically to undergraduates and postgraduates which is unheard of in western culture.
But this obsession with numbers and metric fixation has a darker side attached to it. Sometimes individuals and institutions “artificially enhance” their stats to suit their needs. Institutions in India provide the highest package, median and mean package of placements, but never the lowest package and the population of these students. Naturally, an international offer will soar up the average package significantly more than a domestic offer and we do not get a clearer picture. Many institutes don’t even publish their records at all. Not to mention there have been reports of students cleverly modifying existing research publications to increase their publication counts.
“There are three types of lies -- lies, damn lies, and statistics.”
Obsession with statistics is even more problematic for critical public institutions like health, police, etc. What if a reputed neurosurgeon refuses to take up a case with minimal survival to keep up his “perfect” record. What if a police officer doesn’t investigate a larger conspiracy and dismisses them as petty crimes in order to artificially lower the crime rate. These are serious issues that may not be unethical per se but they challenge the efficacy of the system nonetheless.
All things will be produced in superior quantity and quality, and with greater ease, when each man works at a single occupation, in accordance with his natural gifts, and at the right moment, without meddling with anything else. ~ Plato
So the question remains is do we need metrics to quantify our “quality”? Well, it definitely gives us a starting point for our research. It helps to pool together our choices and then individually assess them according to our needs. But if we look at them as our sole guide, they may blissfully blind us to the real world.
Thank you for your patient reading
by-Deepti Ranjan Behera