Reactions to the ranking of universities: is Malaysia over-reacting?

thesqscover.jpgI have had a chance to undertake a quick survey among colleagues in other countries regarding reactions to the UK’s Times Higher World University Rankings 2007 in their respective countries.

A colleague in the UK noted that as one might expect from the home of one of the more notorious world rankings, and a higher education system obsessed with reputation, ‘league tables’ are much discussed in the UK. The UK government, specifically, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), as noted last week, has commissioned a major research into five ranking systems and their impact on higher education institutions in England. In other words, the UK government is very concerned with the whole business of ranking of universities, for the reputation of the UK as a global centre for higher education is at stake.

Another colleague reported that, among academics in the UK, that the reaction to the Times Higher rankings varies widely. Many people working in higher education are deeply sceptical and cynical about the value of such league tables, about their value, purpose and especially methodology. For the majority of UK universities that do not appear in the tables and are probably never likely to appear, the tables are of very little significance. However, for the main research-led universities they are a source of growing interest. These are the universities that see themselves as competing on the world stage. Whilst they will often criticise the methodologies in detail, they will still study the results very carefully and will certainly use good results for publicity and marketing. Several leading UK universities (e.g., Warwick) now have explicit targets, for example, to be in the top 25 or 50 by a particular year, and are developing strategies with this in mind. However, it is reported that most UK students pay little attention to the international tables, but universities are aware that rankings can have a significant impact on recruitment of international students.

In Hong Kong, the Times Higher rankings has been seriously discussed in both the media and by university presidents (some of whom received higher rankings this year, thus making it easier to request increased funding from government based on their success). Among scholars/academics, especially those familiar with the various university ranking systems (the Times Higher rankings and others, like the Shanghai Jiaotong University rankings), there is some scepticism, especially concerning the criteria used.

Rankings are a continuous source of debate in the Australian system, no doubt as a result of Australia’s strong focus on the international market. Both the Times Higher rankings and the recent one undertaken by the Melbourne Institute have resulted in quite strong debate, spurred by Vice Chancellors whose institutions do not score in the top.

In Brazil, it is reported that ranking of universities did not attract media attention and public debate for the very reason that university rankings have had no impact on the budgetary decision of the government. The more relevant issue in the higher education agenda in Brazil is social inclusion, thus public universities are rewarded by their plans for extending access to their undergraduate programs, especially if it includes large number of students per faculty. Being able to attract foreign students is secondary in nature to many universities. Thus, public universities have had and continue to have assured access to budget streams that reflects the Government’s historical level of commitment.

A colleague in France noted that the manner Malaysia, especially the Malaysian Cabinet of Ministers and the Parliament, reacted to Times Higher rankings is relatively harsh. It appears that, in the specific case of Malaysia, the ranking outcome is being used by politicians to ‘flog’ senior officials governing higher education systems and/or universities. And yet critiques of such ranking schemes and their methodologies (e.g., via numerous discussions in Malaysia, or via the OECD or University Ranking Watch) go unnoticed. Malaysia better watch out, as the world is indeed watching us.

Morshidi Sirat

2 thoughts on “Reactions to the ranking of universities: is Malaysia over-reacting?

  1. Pingback: Global university rankings 2007: interview with Simon Marginson « GlobalHigherEd

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