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Learning from the best

  • Published at 12:00 am May 26th, 2019
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How do you rank universities in a globalized world?

A recent book titled The Metric Society, by Steffen Mau, argues that society today is dominated by rankings. Universities are not immune to this. Aided by Big Data, we cannot help creating ranks in a corporatized world. 

Higher education has also become a big industry. Corporatization of higher educational institutions is an aspect of 21st century globalization. Education for profit or money is not new. In ancient Greece, the wandering Sophists provided education for a fee. But the way education has been corporatized in the knowledge-driven society is unprecedented.

I recall at a conference at Groningen University in 2014, where the president of the university proudly announced that his university had made it to top 100 universities of the world according to Times Higher Education ranking. When I told him that I teach at a university of two decades old, he quipped that it took them 400 years to make the list and suggested we brace for a long wait.

But that may not be true.

Universities can mobilize resources, streamline its governance, strategize to improve their ranks, and achieve the desired results provided they have the will and the resources. 

In my earlier position as a teacher at National University of Singapore (NUS), I was both proud and sceptical in 2004 when NUS was ranked by Times Higher Education Supplement as number 18 in the world ranking of top 200 universities.

I was proud because I belonged to that institution and, in theory, played a part, however small, as a faculty member. But since I was also familiar with many leading universities of the world, I was convinced that such rankings should be taken with a pinch of salt. 

I was surprised that none of the famous Indian Institutes of Technology -- in fact, not a single Indian higher educational institution -- made the list that year.

My own alma mater, University of Pittsburgh, was not on the list, and Cornell University and Columbia University, institutions I spent time as a visiting scholar, were behind NUS. 

The variables used by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) -- the organization that carried out the survey in partnership with the Times Higher Education -- included “reputation” in the opinion of the peers, international orientation, salary of the faculty members, and so on. No wonder Indian universities were not on the list.

NUS and University of Hong Kong were generous paymasters -- moreover, they were focused, driven by a need for achievement. These universities hired leading academics who published tons of research papers in leading journals. There are multiple rankers of the universities. 

Since 2009, Times Higher Education broke off with QS and launched its own World University Ranking in partnership with Thompson Reuters. In the ranking of the top 10, there is a great deal of consistency. But not so for the rest.

However, rankings of the other elite universities vary a lot depending on the variables or parameters used in the evaluation. One important factor is to consider the motivation of the rankers.

Most of the well-known rankers are for-profit organization. From my point of view, the gold standard in university ranking is what started off as Jiaotong University ranking done by the top Chinese university based in Shanghai.

As tens of thousands of Chinese students were being sent overseas to gain knowledge to fuel ambitious Chinese growth, their government tasked Jiaotong University to prepare a list of the top universities in the world for very practical reasons. This is a government that demands value for money.

Jiaotong not only ranked universities but also ranked departments and fields of inquiries.

Of the small number of universities in Asia that made it to the top ranking of various rankers in 2019, some interesting variations can be seen.

Of the top 50 Asian universities, according to Times Higher Education, two are from the UAE. Within the top 25 is King Abdul Aziz University of Saudi Arabia.

Of the female-male ratio, UAE University ranked 49, and has 81 females to 19 males, IIT Indore ranked 50, has 15 females against 85 males. King Abdul Aziz University ranked 23, and has 55 females against 45 males.

The top Indian higher educational institute on the top 50 list is Indian Institute of Science (ranked 29) and IIT Indore is ranked 50. IIT Kharagpur is ranked 76, IIT Kanpur is ranked 82.  The top 100 universities are dominated by China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea.

Leading Indian universities are between 100 and 200. Panjab University, 136; Benares Hindu University, 140; Jadavpur University, 144; University of Delhi, 156; Aligarh Muslim University, 182; and Jamia Milia Islamia University, 188. The only Pakistani university that makes the rank between 100 and 200 is COMSATS University, Islamabad, which is ranked 131. Many of the top ranked universities in Asia are fairly new.

According to QS Asia University Ranking 2019, University of Dhaka is ranked 127, ahead of University of Calcutta, ranked 134; COMSATS, ranked 135; Jadavpur University, ranked 137, Beijing Jiaotong University, ranked 139; International Islamic University of Malaysia, ranked 143; and Vietnam National University, ranked 144. Most of these universities have decent rankings in the 2019 Times Higher Education ranking. 

Four factors may have played a role in the newer universities achieving top ranks: Determination of the governments and the universities concerned to achieve a clearly defined objective; focus on research productivity targeting quality publications in the higher-ranked journals for which recruiting top quality researchers as faculty members is a pre-requisite; recruiting top quality students regardless of gender; and, finally, internationalization of both faculty members and students by creating a merit-based system.

Habibul Haque Khondker is a professor of Social Science at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi, UAE.