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The Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2014-2015 has caused some concern in Malaysia, and rightly so. There is not a single Malaysian university in the top 400 positions. What is more discomforting is the decision of Universiti Malaya (UM) and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) to opt out from participating in the THE ranking exercise. They argue that the THE ranking is less relevant to their direction and focus.

They are featured in the QS World University Rankings, which seems to present a more favourable picture of their performance. Their decision to accept the QS ratings and reject the THE ratings has only compounded the problem, for it seems to reflect a lack of academic honesty. At one time UM was on the THE list but as its rankings began to fall, UM decided not to participate in the survey.

Several criticisms have been levelled at Malaysian universities for their poor showing in international rankings of educational institutions. Malaysian universities are constantly compared with Singapore where the National University of Singapore (NUS) secured a world ranking of 25 in the THE list for 2014-2015 and Nanyang Technological University was placed 61.

Several universities in East Asia have also shown high rankings, with the University of Tokyo leading the pack at position 23.

What is the message for Malaysian universities, especially for UM which started off at the same time as NUS?

While I agree with many of the criticisms and concerns expressed, I would content that a more balanced understanding of university rankings is needed. Leaving aside the question of methodology used in ranking universities and the plethora of rankings that exist, the critical question is: What do the rankings mean?

What interpretation can we attach to them? It is obvious that institutions that everyone accepts as being good are on the top of the list. There is no dispute about the quality of universities like Caltech, Harvard, MIT, Oxford and other similar institutions. They are all at the top of the THE list. So, the rankings do reflect quality and provide a benchmark for international comparisons of educational institutions.

This is important and relevant to stakeholders like students, employers, donors, investors and governments.

But is the opposite equally true? If a university or institution is not on the list or near the top, does it follow that it does not offer quality education?

This is tricky. I know of hundreds of small liberal arts colleges in the United States that are not on the THE list but provide excellent education to its students. They do not even aspire to be on the list because they define their role in terms of their mission and purpose. Their students go to them because they believe they are getting value for their money and a unique learning experience that is student-centred.

They are taught by good professors in small classes who are not distracted by research and publication.

Just wanting to be themselves

These institutions don’t want to be Caltech or Harvard. They just want to be themselves, dedicated to providing the best education they can to their students. Neither do their students want to go to Caltech or Harvard because they believe they are getting the best education they want from their colleges.

To these institutions global rankings and the THE metrics and parameters would have little relevance. To them any attempt to get on the THE or QS world ranking list would be a distraction from their mission to provide good education.

Similarly, I know of many Business Schools that do not seek professional accreditation from Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) for their programmes because they believe membership in the professional body will lead to a distortion of their resources to meet benchmarks set by the body.

They think they can better utilise their academic and financial resources to achieve their educational goals if they have a free hand to offer and teach the business programs and courses they want. They believe the measures imposed by AACSB in the name of quality are more a hindrance than help in achieving their educational goals. In their view, AACSB accreditation is not essential to offering a quality business program.

The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) in India provide additional evidence to the limitations of global rankings of educational institutions. I have visited several of the IITs. They are providing high quality education, especially in science, engineering and technology for a pittance. They are heavily subsidised by the Indian government.

Competition to get in is intense. The graduates are in high demand, both in India and overseas, especially in the United States. Many of them have become prominent entrepreneurs and CEOs of global corporations.

Yet the IITs do not feature prominently in the global rankings of universities. Only two IITs (Mumbai and Roorkee) made it to the top 400 in the THE ranking of 2014. Does India’s poor showing in the world university rankings reflect the quality of education provided by its educational institutions?

Even the India Institutes of Management (IIMs) are not prominent in the rankings. Yet the MBA program offered at IIM Ahmedebad is regarded as one of the best in the world. Similarly for the MBA at IIM Calcutta. There are cases where students have turned down admission to MBA programs in American Ivy schools in favour of IIM Calcutta.

How do we interpret the rankings?

This does raise the question: How do we interpret the university rankings in the THE survey? Here I am not questioning the need to evaluate the performance and quality of universities. Evaluation is necessary, especially in the case of public institutions. The issue is, what do the evaluations and rankings mean? We find universities high in the QS list but low in the THE list.

The point I  am trying to make is that it is important to understand university evaluations and rankings in the proper context. While there are measures of excellence, excellence is still contextual.

What does all this mean for our universities? First, they must not shy away from global evaluations, like the QS and THE surveys. These surveys can be helpful in identifying domains of strength and weaknesses and as global benchmarks.

Second, forget the rankings. The objective should not be how to move up the ranks but how to build good universities and offer high quality programs. Otherwise, rankings can become an obsession and this can lead to distortion of resources and policies. If we go after quality and excellence, ranking will take care of itself in the long run. What is important is to review all our universities and the policies governing them.

We seem to be settling for mediocrity. This must change. The top universities in THE list did not set out to be on the list. They are on the list because they set out to be good instituitions.

We have 20 public universities, 37 private universities and 11 university colleges. Obviously most of them do not have the financial resources or the academic competencies to compete in the QS or THE listings.

This does not mean they should not go after offering quality programs and good teaching. To expect them to meet the evaluation criteria of QS or THE will be a tall order. In this context, it is also necessary to critically assess the criteria employed by the government in issuing licences for private universities.

As for the public universities, a thorough review of their structure, policies, programs and management is urgently required. In the 1960s and 1970s Universiti Malaya was widely recognised not because it was on the QS or THE list but simply because it was a quality institution, with quality faculty and quality students.

Many of the evaluation metrics and parameters presently employed by QS and THE in ranking universities were in place and practised by UM at that time. Gradually we had moved away from quality to mediocrity. The task before us now is to go back to the basics - build and run universities as centres of excellence for imparting and creating knowledge. If we do a good job at this, the global rankings will follow.

This does not mean we do nothing. The authorities can intervene to kick start the process through more funding to our universities and making better policies. Most importantly, we need a complete paradigm shift in the way we run our universities if we are to build institutions that are globally competitive.