Alternatives to global university rankings

Universities should adopt modes of evaluation which privilege horizontality, diversity and unique expertise, or a preference for specific challenges faced by communities

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Rankings have negatively affected scholars in many ways, including by causing psychological distress.

The exaggerated preoccupation with rankings has led to a state of constant anxiety, selfishness and stress among academic colleagues.

Commercial rankers are aware of this but deliberately ignore it. Generating income is their main agenda.

Anxiety at the institutional level has led some universities to pay their scholars to publish in high-impact journals. These are journals considered as highly influential in their academic discipline.

Clarivate Analytics is a ranking company which ranks journals’ reputations. It measures the frequency with which an article in a particular journal has been cited in a particular year.

Traditional (genuine) scholars have a passion for teaching and learning. Most also love to write. Publishing is an inevitable consequence of the desire to disseminate ideas to a wider audience. They are also in constant search of new knowledge.

However, in today’s frenetic world of academe, lecturers are full of anxiety about their careers and whether they will have a salary and administrative position adequate to support their lifestyles and egos.

At the same time, academics are constantly pressured by the top university management to publish at least three high-impact titles, if not more, per academic year.

The incessant nagging about quantity has a serious impact on a scholar’s mental faculties. They are now forced to read, think, write and publish like robots. It is no wonder that many lecturers at our universities are unethical and resort to plagiarism.

They also become toxic personalities who spend their careers conniving against and manipulating one other. The extreme competition among them has produced the despicable culture of ‘bodek’ism. Lecturers ‘suck up’ to their administrative superiors and become yes men and women throughout their careers, just so they can race up the promotion ladder.

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In this environment, it is no wonder that hardly any original thinking and writing is produced. Mediocrity reigns supreme.

It is a regular practice now for university managements to prioritise citation scores when hiring academic staff. This is a practice in both public and private universities.

Scholarly inclination, intellectual depth, contribution as a public intellectual, popular media writings, accessibility of ideas by the public, conversational and listening skills and even personality are less important in the hiring process.

The primacy of citation scores has led to a frenzy of comparisons with other universities. Universities embark on excessive corporate branding. It is not uncommon to read kitschy slogans attached below every university name.

The obsession with corporate branding has neglected the university’s original and noble task of teaching and moulding young minds.

Due to the pressures of global university rankings, a lot of surreptitious attention is paid to data manipulation, fabrication and other forms of cheating or ‘gaming’ – to the detriment of the quality of teaching, staff wellbeing, student learning, and relevant research.

How do we fix this?

If a critical mass of universities, academics and students (supported by the government) withdrew their participation in global university rankings, these rankings would be exposed en masse. More voices must call out the rankings’ exploitative and unethical agenda.

Such a movement takes time, so other simultaneous actions must be mobilised. For example, public universities in Malaysia must project an alternative narrative that focuses on the unique strengths of each university. This would draw attention back to the classical character of the university as a domain of expertise.

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Universities must actively develop their unique niches of expertise. Each university should deploy their human, financial and technical resources to nurture specialised fields of study. Boost reputation by reintroducing creative variety in intellectual work. Stop nagging lecturers to publish quantity. Emphasise quality.

Universities should adopt modes of evaluation which privilege horizontality, diversity, unique expertise or a preference for specific challenges faced by communities, social causes and sector-specific focus.

For example, the rationale behind dropping “pertanian” (agriculture) from Universiti Putra Malaysia’s name was to represent the university’s transformed focus beyond agriculture. In 1997, the national agenda was to prioritise science and technology development.

In fact, throughout the 1990s, public universities were in a frenzy to become “Jacks of all trades”. Unfortunately, by 2023, most have evolved to become “masters of none”.

Rankers claim that their system of assessing universities is based on the logic of efficiency and economic value. It is imperative that we look for alternatives.

All relevant higher education stakeholders (including Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and his ministers) must be serious about understanding the global university rankings’ nefarious agenda.

Engage academics in our universities, not just the top management. Have conversations with young students, investors, businesses and parents about creating nonaligned, unranked, and alternative higher education institutions. Discuss the finer aspects of the purpose of a university education and why a university’s primary task is not to prime students for the job market.

This is the kind of multi-sectoral engagement that must take place. In fact, this should emerge as a new form of public-private partnership which would truly benefit the nation.

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There must be a national conversation about how global university rankings have been slowly destroying societies around the world, including in Malaysia. We must be very clear about how to pick what is good about the current ranking system and what to reject immediately. We must actively oppose its excessive corporate capitalist forms.

One way to do this is to stop forcing academics to publish so much. Rather, encourage them to publish quality articles and books so that they have more time to engage in quality teaching and student engagement.

A well-known decolonial scholar and sociologist, Boavetura de Sousa Santos, suggested that we make universities extensions of learning into communities and everyday life, not just focus on job-seeking. The International Islamic University of Malaysia’s vice-chancellor recently picked up on this and conceptualised the “communiversity”.

This warrants further consideration, does it not? After all, humanity must revert to celebrating our heterogeneous “ecology of knowledges”. It is time to abandon the myopic and selfish corporatisation of education pushed by global university rankings. โ€“ Free Malaysia Today

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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