Saturday, January 17, 2009

Much To Be Learnt From University Rankings

Much To Be Learnt From University Rankings

By: Sharifah Hapsah Shahabudin
Vice Chancellor, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia

Since it was first published in 2004, the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) Ranking of World Universities has never failed to rouse heated debate here. This year, eyebrows were raised when the university selected for the Accelerated Programme for Excellence (Apex) – Universiti Sains Malaysia – did not rise in the ranking while the other three research universities (RUs) did.

Universiti Malaya not only improved but maintained its lead position at 230. Universiti kebangsaan Malaysia, notably, moved up 59 places to 250.

We should not be surprised that the THES ranking is associated with Apex. Ranking is implied in the National Higher Education Strategic as well as Action Plans, where the targets are two universities in the top 100 by 2015, three by 2020 and two in the top 50 beyond 2020.

The ensuing discussion in Parliament and the media brought into sharp focus the need to raise awareness and understanding about ranking, Apex, research universities and even quality assurance as well as the relationships among them.

Apex is about selecting a university with the most potential to transform and manage change. Under Apex, the selected university will be provided appropriate resources, autonomy and even a legal framework for transformation into a leading world research university. The selection committee never claimed that USM was already Apex, but was convinced that its performance could match the world’s leading research universities once changes are instituted.

The kind of changes involved will be tranformational, approximating the “education revolution” called for by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. To quote its vice chancellor, USM is the “guinea pig” for all the other RUs.

However, transformation is not only pertinent to USM but to all Rus and the higher education sector itself. Apex and RUs are inextricably linked. The role of USM will be to help delineate the ideas, processes, procedures, conditions, systems and even the legal framework for transforming higher education for the new knowledge economy and society.

Universities, in particular RUs, are the key institutions for nurturing intellectual leadership and intangible capital such as intellectual property, networks, brands and talent. They are also vehicles for the intelligent transfer of the knowledge generated from research to utilisation, through solid networking.

It is, therefore, critical that the benefits such as autonomy and accountability measures that accrue to USM during the transformation process are extended to the other RUs.

The 2008 THES ranking is partial testimony to the seriousness with which RUs pursue their roles. There must be something remarkable about their transformation plans, and the effectiveness with which these are executed, for them to rise in the rankings. With the benefits of Apex extended quickly, we will get not only good but highly differentiated RUs. This is because transformation plans are unique to each university, and differentiation is highly desirable.

By 2015, we might even surpass the ministry’s expectations by having three or more universities in the top 100.

There is much we can learn from ranking to enhance institutional quality. UKM was invited to present how this is done at the first Asem (Asia-Europe Meeting) Rector’s Conference in Berlin from Oct 27 to 29. But THES ranking should not be used solely as an international benchmark for comparing the strengths of institutions.

In UKM, we understand that ranking is only a snapshot of an institution’s position relative to others. Changes in ranking depend on the performance of other institutions as well. The criteria used do not provide a complete picture of a university’s worth, and some might even reflect poor choice proxies of the qualities identified.

THES ranking does indicate research and teaching quality, through measures such as peer assessment, citations per faculty and faculty-student ratio. We use these as input, alongside other data monitoring the performance of a university’s core functions of teaching, research and service.

Ranking is, therefore, used in periodic self-assessment to identify the strengths, gaps, areas of concern and opportunities in all core functions, benchmarking, closing the gaps and enhancing quality. Self-assessment, which is almost always followed by external peer assessment, is quality assurance.

We should not indulge in knee-jerk reactions such as hurriedly recruiting more international students and faculty because quality cannot be sacrificed and there are still unmet local demands. Such reactions are not only shortsighted and counter productive for institutional capacity building, they may jeopardise the nurturing of a true academic culture and endanger the university’s mission.

UKM’s goal is to be among the world’s leading universities by 2018. We will rise to the challenges of globalisation and multiculturalism while reinforcing our role as a national university in promoting nation-building, unity, the national language and national identity.

To achieve this, a comprehensive transformation plan is formulated to address ranking in a rational and sustainable way.

The metaphor for the UKM plan is that of a soaring bird, with the backbone representing our core functions of research, education and servise, supported by resources for effective delivery. The wings represent the driver projects designed to help us leap forward. The right wing represents the projects that promote our quintessential role as a national university. The left wing are projects to nurture a strong research culture and internationalisation that will propel us into the global community of leading universities by 2018.

Actions include focusing on niche areas and promoting multidisciplinary research, monitoring and providing incentives for a citation leap, developing centres of research excellence, global language proficiency, benchmarking and international outreach for students and faculty.

With comprehensive transformation plans and benefiting from the experience of USM, all Rus should move up in the rankings. Next year, there will be another round of discussions on the THES rankings. By then, we should be more enlightened.

Source: New Straits Times, Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Related link: Plagiarism in Universiti Putra Malaysia
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