World university rankings have become an ‘arms race’

Malaysia is currently abuzz with the latest release of the Times Higher Education world university rankings, in which Oxford University is in top position, National University of Singapore places 25th and two universities in China have emerged top in Asia.

Times Higher Education (THE) is not the only business engaged in ranking higher education. There is Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings, the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), and close to a dozen more.

The methodology used by THE to assess global performance is based on teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook. They also use performance indicators, which are grouped into five areas: teaching (the learning environment), research (volume, income and reputation), citations (research influence), international outlook (staff, students and research) and industry income (knowledge transfer).

None of the systems gives a comprehensive overview of the strengths of the universities.

Each system selects a range of easily quantifiable characteristics, from magazines, newspapers, websites, governments and academics. For example, to rank the learning environment at a particular university, representatives from QS or ARWU do not actually sit in a lecture hall to assess the quality of teaching. They rely on published and other forms of secondary data.

How then do these indicators describe a university’s performance and quality? How do the indicators translate into the prestige of any university? To answer, we need to consider the following.

The ranking of universities is as good as a form of academic imperialism, a powerful instrument of knowledge ownership initiated by the developed West, and imposed globally. It establishes the norms that determine a global higher education hierarchy.

It is deliberately blind to culture or multi-faceted levels of economic development across the regions. They justify this under the guise of objectivity. It pays little attention to real-world student experience in different socio-political and cultural conditions. Furthermore, the quality of any higher education system should be judged by its contribution to progressive development of the society in which it exists.

A positive educational experience for most university students is based on the following: efficient campus amenities, resourcing of laboratories, the quality of campus housing, the availability of scholarly books and journals in all academic fields, the approachability of lecturers, classroom dynamics, healthy professor-student debates, on-campus intellectual discussions, student organisations, efficient free transportation and access to cultural activities provided by adjacent towns and cities. Ranking exercises do not consider these.

Ideally, students in Malaysia should look forward to a robust intellectual culture in the universities. However, it has become increasingly rare for lecturers to gather groups of students in their offices, and to engage in critical intellectual exchanges that are not directly related to the courses they teach.

If such healthy intellectual discourse on campuses were part of the global ranking criteria, all Malaysian universities would be at the bottom of the list.

Additionally, the ranking criteria dictates that these scholarly activities are not a priority. Hence, Malaysian universities do not encourage robust and informal scholarly debates that would otherwise take education to higher philosophical levels.

Ultimately, this is a form of intellectual suppression or colonisation, hidden behind the glamour of numerical international recognition.

Popular understanding about the world university rankings is that it is an accurate indicator of quality and prestige of the universities. Prestige is important because it determines choice. Prestige determines what you will study and with whom you study, and it influences your future career choices. Prestige influences the allocation of public resources. In Malaysia, it influences the direction of state-sponsored research and teaching. It also acts as a form of national agenda-setting.

However, what is often left unsaid is how ranking creates a form of false consciousness about quality and worth. It establishes a hierarchy of education among and within nations. This compels countries to submit and adapt to norms, which are assumed to be universal. Participating universities are under the false consciousness that they are globally-accepted and critically-monitored for quality-control. This raises the question, “how should we conceptualise the quality of our education?”

Global norms suggest a set of rules which are directly related to transnational economic activity. The premise is that in order for any country to be globally competitive, that nation will have to improve its education standards. In order to be competitive, these countries have no choice but to play by the rules.

The first rule is the compulsion to achieve better scores. As a result, an industry around consultancy has emerged. Universities around the world, pressured by governments, parents and students, “consult” with higher education ranking services in the hope of becoming world class, based on their rules. The annual list of ranking achievements is often preceded by conferences, consultancy meetings, workshops and other prestigious events. It is a lucrative business.

The second rule is that universities pay for the ranking services. A 2013 publication Inside Higher Education confirmed that it costs US$9,850 as well as an additional annual licensing fee of US$6,850, for three years. The licence allows universities to use the ranking service’s logos and graphics for their promotional materials.This business transaction and marketing strategy attaches a market-driven standard to quality and knowledge production. A university that is accredited with global standards through these means merely suggests that it has paid to earn this qualification.

A third rule that determines so-called “high academic quality” is the heavy reliance on publication citations in world rankings. For countries like Malaysia, many public universities do not use English as their primary language of instruction or publications. Academics will find it difficult to publish in what is perceived as well-ranked international journals. These journals publish articles predominantly in English.

Even though there are excellent Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia journals, they are too few compared to the English language journals. Also, a conceptual or theoretical social science article written in its original BM would lose scholarly interpretive nuances when translated into English.

Overall, academics who produce scholarly output in their mother tongue would eventually lose out. The international norms of academic publishing are dictated by five for-profit companies, all based in the geographic West.

The term globalisation itself suggests that the economic interests of a few powerful countries dictate the behaviour of the rest of the world. The exact definition is: “the process by which businesses or other organisations develop international influence or start operating on an international scale”. The word “influence” is key here.

The majority of states, institutions and social actors across the globe find themselves conforming to the business and politics of education. They should realise that ranking exercises are driven by economic and geopolitical agendas of a few powerful countries.

Global education standards are no longer just about enhancing student choice. It is increasingly about geo-economic repositioning. The production of ranking data is a highly competitive industry.

The ranking arms race has allowed competing services to tinker with the rules. It has attached numerical qualifications to philosophical determinants of quality. Academics based in peripheral regions find themselves co-opted into a game erroneously-defined as academic excellence.

It is about time that universities in the developing world take charge of their own educational trajectory. Malaysian universities must remain focused on a unique national agenda which is framed by specific socio-cultural and developmental objectives.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

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