‘Education not a sport’

Not just a number: Looking at rankings in isolation, it’s easy to form a skewed view of the role and contribution of universities. – 123rf.com

RECENTLY, Times Higher Education (THE) released its World University Rankings for 2023 and as expected, many universities around the world responded with a flurry of self-congratulatory messages highlighting how their institutions either had been top ranked in one thing or another, or had improved upon previous rankings, patting themselves on the back in the process.

There’s little doubt that rankings make for attention-grabbing media headlines. In Malaysia, the press proudly proclaimed that “a record number of 22 Malaysian universities are now in the THE World University Rankings 2023 compared with 18 last year”.

Similarly, “Malaysia is home to one of Asia’s strongest higher education systems, according to the latest QS University Rankings: Asia 2023”. Hurrah!

Aside from prestige and bragging rights, much is at stake for universities. Such rankings are an influential marketing tool in helping students and their parents decide where to study.

Generally speaking, lower ranked universities find it harder to attract students than higher ranked ones, with direct consequences on university income.

For many universities, it is a matter of survival, and it should therefore come as no surprise that the performance of university vice-chancellors, presidents and heads is often judged on their abilities to improve, or at least maintain, their institutions’ rankings.

Indeed, it was unfortunate to read about the case of a former dean at Temple University’s Fox School of Business who was found guilty of fraud in fabricating data to boost the school’s position in the influential US News and World Report College Rankings.

He was convicted in November 2021, and was fined and sentenced to prison in March this year in connection with a scheme to artificially inflate the school’s programme rankings against other schools nationwide.

To obfuscate matters further, different university rankings can produce markedly different results. In many of the established rankings, research and citations account for the lion’s share of the weightage – around 60% – whereas teaching may account for 30% or less.

By fiddling with the criteria and the weightings, an institution can, at least on paper, be made to look like a rising star or an average Joe. Understandably, universities tend to cherry-pick what they publicise to present themselves in the best light.

Some rankings also rely on so-called reputation surveys from within the university community, which are inherently subjective. Rankings also often fail to capture other important aspects of university “performance” such as community service, lifelong learning, social mobility, graduate employability, industry collaboration, and environmental, social and governance (ESG) activities.

Rankings essentially reduce universities to a number, and looking at rankings in isolation, it’s easy to form a skewed, myopic view at the expense of the broader role and contribution universities make to education and society.

Despite their limitations, rankings and league tables have become an inescapable part of the higher education landscape. Indeed, they have become the de facto measure of institutional success.

Universities that do well in rankings naturally have a vested interest in not only keeping, but also promoting, the ranking system, while universities that choose not to participate in them run a real risk of losing out. Just as academics are told to “publish or perish”, universities must “participate or perish”.

Given what’s at stake, it’s not surprising that many universities seek to “play” the system, and devise strategies to explicitly increase their positions in rankings and league tables by aligning themselves with the criteria and metrics used.

This is not necessarily a bad thing but the danger, as with any unhealthy obsession, is that rankings become “THE” end, rather than a means to an end.

University rankings and league tables, by their very nature, pit one institution against another.

Education is not a sport, and we should not compare universities with football teams competing in the higher education equivalent of the English Premier League. There are far more important things we need our universities to focus on.

Prof Wing Lam is the provost and chief executive officer at University of Reading Malaysia, an international branch campus of University of Reading, United Kingdom. He has held a variety of academic positions in Malaysia, Singapore and the UK. Prof Wing completed his PhD in computer science at King’s College London in 1994. He has published over 80 peer-reviewed articles and journals. His current areas of research interest include technology and innovation. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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