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The Academic Reputation Survey (ARES), carried out by the National Accreditation Board (LAN), on 17 public universities ('Public universities fail outstanding test', New Straits Times, Nov 3), is a sad reflection of how utterly mediocre our university system is or rather how close to that, the ARES and the LAN are as tools of public accountability.

The public has been fooled into thinking that this half-baked survey can be taken as a substitute for a 'ranking system'. The fact of the matter is that it is not a ranking system. It was merely a perceptions survey, without the public being told who exactly were being surveyed. The ARES sent out 954 questionnaires and received 272 responses, supposedly from "higher education institutions, two Asean universities (National University of Singapore and Institut Teknologi Brunei), nine corporate bodies and 19 professional and certification bodies."

First of all, questionnaires are only answered by respondents (or living individuals) and not inanimate bodies; only individuals perceive, not institutions. This means that we need to know who were the "persons" rather than the "institutions" who responded to the questionnaire. Did they represent the institutions and in what capacity? We need a breakdown of the profiles of these 272 respondents; such as how many were males or females, which institutions do they come from, their occupations, age, educational qualification, etc.

It would make a lot of difference to the credibility of the result (which 'ranked' USM as the top university), if, out of the 272 respondents, 70% were from USM itself! Furthermore, what is the breakdown of respondents from the public and the private sectors? If a majority were from the public sector then this could mean a case of government self-praise, rather than independent judgement.

Anyway, statistical validity aside (which happens to be the main problem of this survey), what about "perceptions" then? How much do these individuals know about the universities they assessed on this sophisticated-sounding, Likert-scale (which is nothing more than jottings on a scale from best to worst in answer to the questions of the questionnaire)? It really matters as to who does the "perceiving".

To a question of whether a postgraduate programme of any university is good or bad - how could the manager of a fast-food chain company, for example, have any idea on how to rate these programmes? How could any of these individuals rate the quality of the academic staff of universities? What yardsticks are they given? I do not want to belabour the need for integrity and precision in statistical methods (or the pitfalls when abused), only to say that this is the crux of the problem of our public universities - even the guardians of their academic standards are short of standards themselves.

It may even be too late to arrest the deterioration of our universities - we are talking about the lives and future of millions of our youths, the country's human resource, the source of its leadership. I am afraid that the education minister and the vice-chancellors are living in a make-believe world about creating an "empire of the minds" (to quote one VC in his newspaper column).

Here I am talking from actual experience. Just put a Malaysian university student alongside their counterparts from Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore and let them all speak, and we shall know that we have done a terrible disservice to our local graduates. Not being able to speak proper English is forgivable, but not being able to articulate ideas and arguments without embarrassing themselves (if they even know of it!) is the graver cost to the reputation (and soul) of the nation.

I do not know what it takes for a wake-up call. I can only say that if it is not now, it is never. And yes, I urge the government to stop the chicanery of devising an internal ranking system. What is the point? You are only listing which of the rotten apples are less rotten, or rather which are the ones having a slower rate of decay. They are all going to get there.