Enhancing understanding of university ranking systems

The University ranking system has become an important tool to market higher education and spells benefits for the education community.

Welcoming the speaker.

Welcoming the speaker.

This was expressed by Professor V.S. Prasad, the former Director of National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), India when speaking on “World University Rankings: Different Perspectives” at the WOU main campus.

The in-house talk organised under the auspices of the WOU Seminar Forum was well attended by University staff, including Board of Governors Chairman Tan Sri Emeritus Prof Gajaraj Dhanarajan, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic-OCL) Prof Mohandas Menon, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic – ODL) Prof Madhulika Kaushik and Chief Administrative Officer Yeong Sik Kheong.

He said ranking can benefit the education community, namely it stimulates quality and increase in performance, and provides information to prospective students, parents, and the public about the quality of the institution.

Explaining the pros and cons of university ranking.

Explaining the pros and cons of university ranking.

“Ranking also promotes self esteem of institutions, enhances the employability of graduates, attracts best students and best faculty, and enables better funding from government or international agencies, while learners would not mind paying more to be in that institution,” Prof Prasad clarified.

He said ranking can contribute to more international collaboration and international students, and to national pride and prestige. “The pride of the national higher education system is reflected in a place in world ranking.”

He expects the university ranking system to become more popular in the future, and called for improvements to the methodologies to “bring more validity, reliability into the whole process of the ranking system”.

On methodological concerns, he mentioned the “arbitrariness in selection of criteria and weightages for measurement of quality”. In measuring world ranking, he said the three criteria of research, teaching and learning, and community engagement are not given equal weightages.

He raised the issue of validity because ranking tends to favour institutions focusing on certain disciplines which are more market-oriented and critical to society. Another concern is a distortion of reality by institutions participating in rankings for commercial purposes.

Prof Prasad shared a few negatives of ranking as well. He said ranking could lead to ‘neo-imperalism’ in higher education, adding, “Western institutions may feel superior since they dominate in world rankings while other institutions strive to follow the Western model, neglecting their own mission and vision.” He also compared resources, citing the example of Harvard University with an annual budget of over US$20m while the annual budget of even the best Indian universities is about RM2m.

He feared that brand images and appearances may become more important than content. “Education is more of an engaging process and a learning experience than a commodity. It is the experience and not the branding that matters.”

School of Foundation & Liberal Studies Dean Dr S. Nagarajan offers his views.

School of Foundation & Liberal Studies Dean Dr S. Nagarajan offers his views.

During Q&A, he conceded that established universities have an advantage if they compete on the same level as new universities, and so age can be one of the parameters used in assessing the performance of institutions by ranking agencies. He noted that there is now more a shift in the last few years for regional and national rankings rather than for world ranking.

He also concurred that university managements may push academics towards research and publications at the expense of teaching, if ranking is a research-centric activity.