Obsessing about university rankings

I FIRST started paying closer attention to the methodology of university rankings in 2005 when Universiti Malaya (UM) was miraculously ranked 89th in the early days of the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) global university ranking.

My colleague, Tony Pua, and I speculated that this high ranking was mostly due to a misclassification of Chinese and Indian Malaysian students as ‘foreigners’ thereby giving the false impression that UM was as ‘international’ as Monash University in Australia. THES subsequently admitted to this error which once corrected, saw UM quickly tumble out of the top 100 ranking.

Since then, I’ve paid much less attention to these global university rankings. The reason is simple. I do not think that our universities should have an explicit goal of wanting to be ranked in the top 100 of any global university rankings. Having this kind of goal would inevitably lead our vice-chancellors to try to ‘game’ the system by delivering short term quick fixes – such as hiring more international faculty and offering more scholarships to foreign students regardless of quality – instead of focusing on the more impactful long-term structural changes that are needed.

The challenges faced by our local universities are far more fundamental in nature and require a different approach in ‘fixing’. For example, many foreign academics are surprised when they find out that a significant percentage of our academics do not have PhDs, which is a basic requirement in almost any research university in a developed country.

Although the government is putting in more funding to increase the number of local academics with PhDs in our public universities, it will be some time before we can reach anywhere close to international standards, even in our higher profile research universities such as UM, UKM, UPM, USM and UTM. This funding should be geared towards sending our brightest potential academics abroad to do their PhDs so that they can benefit from a more established research environment and learning from more experienced scholars and researchers.

To climb up the global university rankings, the number of publications in international recognised journals (ISI journals in academic speak) must increase. But this would be problematic for researchers who may have problems writing their papers in English.

For some, the subject matter of research interest may not appeal to an international journal but may be more appropriate to be published as a book or monograph or in a local or regional journal that is not an ISI journal. It would be far better to increase our research and research output capacity through different channels and publications rather than to give overarching focus to ISI publications.

It is not easy for any vice-chancellor to introduce structural changes that deliver results only in the medium or longer term. It doesn’t help that politicians focus obsessively on the global university rankings, often without knowing the underlying methodology on how they are created and how they can be ‘gamed’ in an irresponsible manner. Politicians and policy makers would help themselves (and our public universities) if they paid closer attention to research which examine the challenges of building ‘world-class’ universities including some case studies that take a closer look at Asian universities such as UM and NUS.

Professor Ghauth Jasmon, who was recently replaced as the VC of UM, tried his level best to introduce significant and ground breaking structural changes during his five-year tenure there. While his focus on ISI journals was perhaps overenthusiastic, I applaud his push to elevate the importance of research in UM including creating research clusters and promoting academically established individuals to head these research units. One can only hope that the culture which he has tried to instill can continue in order to produce more research output that hopefully can become world class over time.

In the latest QS World University Rankings, UM is the highest placed public university coming in at 167. UKM, USM and UTM made it to the top 400. However, in the latest THES rankings, no Malaysian university even made it to the top 400. This example only shows to highlight the vagaries of world university rankings especially when it comes to ranking universities outside the top 100 where a difference of a few points can result in a significant shift in ranking.

With the merging of the Ministry of Education and Higher Education, the momentum to restructure our public universities may be lost. The current review of the Higher Education landscape won’t be complete until 2014. Hopefully, it will not be a document that will obsess on catapulting a Malaysian public university into the top 100 universities in one of the many global rankings that are currently in existence. Far more fundamental reforms are needed.

> Dr. Ong Kian Ming is the MP for Serdang. He can be reached at im.ok.man@gmail.com The views expressed are entirely the writer's own

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