Tussle between university rankings and community engagement

Universities that want to engage in regional development, community outreach or even philanthropic support say they first have to overcome the ‘tyranny’ of international university rankings, which mainly value research output and give little credit for helping to transform society, including reducing poverty and inequity.

Although the issue of rankings was not on the official agenda of the ASEAN “Regional Conference on Higher-Education-Industry-Community Engagement in Asia: Forging Meaningful Partnerships”, held in Malaysia this week, university leaders and academics said the advent of rankings was damaging their universities’ wider public purpose and civic engagement.

“The argument is that, unless a particular activity involves intellectual work, it cannot be among the core business of universities,” said Jose M Cruz, vice-president of Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines.

“The counter argument is that unless universities engage society directly, they run the risk of forgetting for whom they exist and of mistaking the generation of knowledge for their ultimate mandate, which is in fact the transformation of society.”

According to Cruz, some of humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries – but, for example, in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity.

A number of delegates called for the ASEAN region to have its own system of rankings.

Several university representatives from the ASEAN region discussed how rankings could be influenced in future to take account of the more diverse missions of public universities.

Some representatives of universities in Asia with strong commitments to regional development and community engagement have been “flying to Europe” to try to convince private organisations that publish international rankings, and the European Union, which has also developed an international university ranking system, to revisit their criteria to better reflect this kind of work.

Prospero de Vera, vice-president of the University of the Philippines, said his institution was under tremendous pressure from government to improve its international rank, although “as a national university we have a very clear mandate in public service. We do far more than what the rankings ask”.

For example, the university hospital treats millions of poor indigenous people for free each year. “But community engagement is not a factor at all in the assessment of universities internationally.”

He added that it was important for people to understand that the core functions of a university were more than just research.

Jaana Puukka, an analyst in the OECD’s education directorate, said that “to get into the top 100 is an immense task and requires huge investments”, and it was far from evident that the necessary level of public funding would be forthcoming in many developing countries in the region.

But regional dynamism, assisted by local universities, could also help them improve rankings. “It is in the interests of universities to ensure their locations are booming so that they can attract better quality staff,” which in turn could improve rankings.

“Not every institution can be world-class according to the narrow rankings criteria but they can be best in their region,” she said.

This was echoed by Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hasan Shahabudin, vice-chancellor of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), which hosted the 7-9 May conference and is the secretariat of AsiaEngage, a new regional platform for university-community-industry engagement in the ASEAN region.

“To pour money into having world-class universities would be short-sighted,” she said.

UKM sets its own targets for academic staff. Overall, 50% of academic time should be spent on research, 30% on teaching and 20% on community outreach, although research staff can spend up to 70% of their time on research as long as the overall faculty targets are met.

“If you really want to be a research university you must make sure publications and citations targets are met,” Sharifah said. These are a major component of international rankings.

However, she added: “When you do community engagement, research must be at the back of your mind. Communicating the impacts and outcomes of your research, so that it can be applied to other communities.”

“It’s up to us to tell them [rankings organisations] how you bring these things like community into the rankings. We do this work, we are recognised for it, but maybe we need to see how we bring this to global prominence.”

For example, international community projects could count as a rankings indicator under the internationalisation criteria, if submitted in the right way, she said.

Within the ASEAN University Network, work is already in progress to build a system to measure the impact of community engagement in universities, said Nantana Gajaseni, the network’s executive director.