HIGHER education was recently all abuzz again over the latest world university ranking. Universiti Malaya, the country’s oldest local university, leads among the locals. Many wait nervously for each ranking announcement. As they all say, such healthy competition brings out the best in universities.
Though ranking does drive universities to improve, ranking can also derail universities from their true role as the source of ideas in nation building.
Few dispute the fact that ranking does have a role. However, nowadays, many of the rankings are not evidence-based. Instead, they are perception-based. And such perception-driven ranking will not shape universities to be the champion of exemplary scholarly works.
This somewhat explains the stand taken by the government on the ranking craze. The Education Minister, for example, has always declared that ranking among the universities should not be an obsession. What is important is that universities are always investing in ways and means to continually improve, and striving to be the best.
But since such ranking has somehow generated a following among students and parents, especially among foreign students, it is rather unwise for universities to completely ignore it. The many international ranking schemes have been well promoted and marketed, hence their strong following.
However, as claimed by some top academics in the country, it is not cheap to subscribe to the schemes. There are many academics who are very critical of the growing obsession by the nation’s universities over such ranking schemes. They are of the view that such obsession can lead to a compromise on the true calling of universities.
Among the ranking schemes, many academics view the Education Ministry’s own Setara (Rating System for Malaysian Higher Education Institutions) ranking as the one that we should give priority to. Unlike most of the world rankings, Setara is evidence-based. The major criteria for judgement are not much different, but in Setara, all claims must be supported by evidence.
Universities have to produce evidence of academic quality, research achievements, international recognition, scholarly excellence and graduate employability. Therefore, unlike the perception- based schemes, Setara would provide better guidance on quality improvement. It is unfortunate that Setara is much less known than the others. It definitely needs more publicity.
We need to improve the visibility of Setara both locally and internationally through better marketing. The way the other schemes are being marketed, Setara pales in comparison.
This is made worse by the fact that Malaysians generally do not see value in our own local products. We always see products from the West as better than our own. We need to change this inferiority complex. This lack of appreciation of our own is not healthy. Malaysia has produced many world-class products. There is no reason to feel inferior.
Setara is an excellent opportunity for us to show the world that we have substance. Schemes like this can effectively compete with all the other world ranking schemes. We can even make Setara world class. Using it, universities can further reinforce their true and noble agenda of becoming the nation’s source of ideas for innovation and societal progress.
The nation needs ideas to sustain the economy, to resolve the many social ills that continue to plague us, not to mention the growing environmental challenges that we face. The universities would be the right place to source such ideas.
Take the global push for sustainable development as an example. The SDGs, sustainable development goals, have all the elements of society, environment and economy. But the success of the SDGs would depend on fresh ideas for research, policy and business opportunities. This is what universities must focus on.
At home, many of our universities have included the SDGs as an integral part of their strategic plan. If all the universities can make the SDGs their major pillar of growth, then we will not be short of ideas to move the nation forward.
PROF DATUK DR AHMAD IBRAHIM
Fellow, Academy of Sciences Malaysia