Monday, October 12, 2009

Obsession with University Rankings: A Case of Missing the Forest for the Trees?

Dr. Mohd Nazari Ismail.

Prof. Gerhard Casper, when he was president of Stanford University in the US once wrote to a magazine that ranks US universities: “As the president of a university that is among the top-ranked universities, I hope I have the standing to persuade you that much about these rankings - particularly their specious formulas and spurious precision - is utterly misleading”. He added “I am extremely sceptical that the quality of a university - any more than the quality of a magazine - can be measured statistically.”

There is certainly a basis for his remark. This is because of the odd fact that in recent years very little positive correlation exists between the performance level of universities in a country and the ability of that country to avoid social and economic malaise.

This was not always the case for if we look back into history, there used to exist very strong linkage between the existence of superior academic institutions and the level of the countries’ economic and social welfare conditions. This is a truism for the Roman civilisation, the Arab-Muslim civilisation during the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates as well as the European civilisation during the Renaissance period. The Romans’ excellent academic institutions which were built upon knowledge sourced from Greek scholars resulted in the flowering of their civilisation. The golden age of Islam was also the time when famous educational institutions such as Al-Azhar in Egypt and other educational institutions in Islamic Spain prospered. In Europe, the Renaissance was also the time when universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Sorbonne and others came into existence.

However, in recent years this linkage seems to have completely disappeared. The top 11 performers of the 2009 THE-QS ranking are American and British universities. However it is interesting to note that these two countries are not only the source of global financial problems, they are also the ones that are in the most critical state. America, despite having Harvard, MIT and other top ranked universities even possesses the dubious honour of being the most indebted country in the world. Its total debt is estimated at almost 50 trillion dollars and its public sector deficit for 2009 is a whopping USD1.4 trillion. On top of that it is also the world’s largest source of carbon emission per capita.

Britain, despite having Oxford and Cambridge, has an external debt which is 400% of GDP, the highest in the G7. Moreover, in a recent ranking of the stability of financial institutions by the World Economic Forum, the UK and the US were ranked at number 37 and 38, below many developing countries.

In Asia, Japan has the most number of top performers in the THES-QS table with the University of Tokyo being the highest ranked Asian university. Eleven Japanese universities are also among the top 200 in the world. But the performance of the Japanese economy is among the worst in the region. In addition, its public debt is predicted to surge to 200% of GDP in 2010. Japanese corporate bankruptcies soared by more than 10% in February of 2009 compared to the previous year and its economic problem is probably the main cause for its position at number 8 in the world in terms of suicide rate.
South Korea is another Asian country that did well in the ranking with four of its universities listed among the top 200. But Korea was among the countries that suffered the worse effects of the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. Its finances were so badly affected that, unlike Malaysia, it had to go cap in hand to the IMF to ask for financial help. South Korean’s economy is still in a precarious position with its foreign debt at the end of 2008 at USD380 billion or 28% of its GDP. South Korean’s position at number 11 in the world in terms of suicide rate is probably also linked to its economic problem.
It is therefore clear that nowadays having the most number of universities in the higher echelon of THE-QS ranking does not mean that the country’s social and economic welfare is also among the best in the world.
This situation is puzzling as one of the most important functions of a university is to produce academicians and graduates who can help generate ideas and formulate policies that will eventually lead to the creation of a nation with a high level of social and economic welfare. When academic institutions are unable to stop economic and social rot from taking place in society, then clearly they are not playing their true roles even if they are among the top in global rankings.
Therefore, the question that needs to be asked is why is there little linkage currently between the economic and social welfare of a country and the performance of the universities of that country. There are two plausible explanations. First, there is a possibility that the top THES-QS-ranked universities from the US, Britain and other socially and economically ill countries have not been producing real intellectuals or thinkers. They may have merely been producing `workers’ or technocrats who are meant to fill the job markets rather than intellectuals who can generate ideas in and provide advice on social values, economic systems and the practices needed to build an economically and socially stable nation. Another possible reason is that the wrong type of research and teaching activities are going on at these universities. In other words, maybe the economic and social frameworks that underlie research and teaching activities there are flawed? If this is true, then what kind of frameworks do we need in Malaysian universities to ensure that our country do not suffer the same fate? These clearly are the types of very complex issues that need further analysis and discussions. Mere concern with the superficial issue of our universities’ position on the THE-QS ranking may be a classic case of missing the forest for the trees.


  1. Dear Prof,
    I think the answer is because we are in the end of Western civilisation. The missing link is the sign of the collapse of their civilisation. But i wonder which civilization will take over....Sg Lurus

  2. Prof Nazari,
    Good Job. The idea that has been post should be elaborate as a complete book with the upporting data. These initiatives enable to bring back the Malaysia tertiary education systems on their track. Let open the mind of all the university administrators.

  3. This is in accordance with the finding of William Playfair in his study of the decline nations which showed that "education of children in all countries grows worse as a nation grows more wealthy." This is a generalization that has hardly been disproven by the experience of the UK, or that of the US.