ASIA: Development ratings vs status rankings

Securing a high position in international university rankings may be a dream for many universities in Asia but rankings that compare smaller regional universities in Asia with Harvard or Oxford are not particularly helpful or relevant, according to a Malaysian academic.

Professor Morshidi Sirat, of the National Higher Education Research Institute at Universiti Sains Malaysia, is heading research backed by the South East Asian Ministers of Education Organisation in Bangkok into new way of assessing the value of universities in developing countries.

Pilot studies are currently under way in partner universities in Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and the Philippines and are expected to be completed by the end of this year.

"We are collaborating with universities in the peripheral regions of these countries, not in the cities. Our aim is to examine to what extent universities in the region can contribute to regional development and serve the needs of their communities," Morshidi told University World News.

"They have their own role to fulfil," he said. "To compare them with universities in a different environment and political system would not be fair."

In particular he fears that for such universities to blindly pursue global or regional Asia rankings could lead to a misdirection of resources that would be to the detriment of their own communities.

"International rankings have introduced key performance indicators that are measurable, but there are things my university is interested in that are intangible. We don't believe in rankings," Morshidi said.

Rankings systems, including those devised by QS, were for 'status-seeking' universities in well-developed countries and institutions in big cities, he said.

"My university and other universities are not taking part in these rankings. If you see these universities they will be down at the bottom (of the list). A lot of these rankings are about internationalisation and peer review but what is more important is what universities are doing in the context of their regions and how they contribute to poverty reduction."

The five-country pilot studies will review government and regional development targets for poverty alleviation and measure how these have been met by universities.

Ratings will include measurements on access to universities, educational equity, community engagement and contribution to the environment and regional economy, and how well universities promoted 'human security' including values such as individual freedoms, reducing gender and political discrimination and other non-tangible measures of progress.

Morshidi said universities' progress would be charted over time to see whether they met the requirements of regional communities in a way that was sustainable over the years. At least eight universities were in Malaysia for whom global rankings were a pipedream.

"These are disadvantaged universities, outside the mainstream, but they have a role to play."

Apart from universities in the capital cities, there were also institutions in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam as well as many in the Philippines, in the same position.

Morshidi said the ratings would also be relevant for countries such as Indonesia, not part of the ongoing study, and Papua New Guinea.