Let’s put aside the game of rankings

By Ahmad Faizuddin

The top ten world university rankings are still dominated by Western and European countries. The Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings® 2016-2017 respectively ranked the top five universities: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford University, Harvard University, University of Cambridge, and California Institute of Technology (CalTech).

From Asian countries, we could be proud of National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technology University (NTU) which ranked 12 and 13 while the rest of Asian universities have higher numbers in ranking.

In Malaysia, the top five universities are Universiti Malaya (133rd), Universiti Putra Malaysia (270th), Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (288th), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (302nd), and Universiti Sains Malaysia (330th). Statistically, the ranking has improved significantly. Universiti Malaya, for instance, ranked 151st in 2014 and 146th in 2015, while Universiti Putra Malaysia ranked 376th in 2014 and 331st in 2015.

Where is the seat for International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM)? IIUM’s performance has declined at the world ranking since 2015 until 2017. It ranked 501, 551 and 601 respectively. But, QS World University Rankings listed IIUM at 46th by subject in Theology, Divinity and Religious Studies. While in Asia, IIUM ranked number 151.

Has the learning experience improved with the rise of the ranking? It seems that today’s universities have lost their focus and sense of core purpose. The learning experience has been distracted by business opportunities. About a century ago, students sit in front of their books which are often shared with classmates. They were not really worried about enrolling in any university. The pleasure of seeking knowledge and working hard to achieve their dreams were the priority. However, in advanced schools today students sit in front of personal computers and are often distracted from the learning.

The learning support has indeed increased dramatically, but in terms of learning experience we have not really improved. More people are competing to do their degrees than ever before. However, the focus seems to be more on skills than knowledge specialisation. Facing global and local challenges, higher education makes new dynamics turn in facing the demands of the 21st century. The system has taken a new turn by making education as commodity. Educational institutions promise its costumers – which are students, and charge them a high amount of academic fees in return for landing them for a specific job in the market.

Many students are busy selecting the best university. Should learning be based on the ranking of the university, while in fact, the ranking is just a game in the business of education? Evidently, some are successful and some others have failed. While it is impossible to figure out how the commodification of education has been overcharging the students, it is proved that the ranking game of the university has successfully created more promises as demanded by global market. There are even special packages for those who could afford to buy “professional certificates” in a short period of time.

This unethical practice is certainly corrupting the culture of academic activity. Education is first and foremost to achieve excellence of the learners so they can contribute to their surrounding societies. It is no surprise then if we are producing mediocre graduates who have the mindset as customers. Instead of serving others, they enjoy to be served because the customer is king.

Numbers and percentages as promoted in the game of ranking university should not distract the ethos or philosophy of education. We should not undermine education by participating in ranking exercises. Education institutions should hold on ethical tendencies and treat students as family, not customers. It is time to re-instil the right values into our education system. Higher education institutions should produce balanced, innovative and entrepreneurial graduates.

Every culture has its own unique identity. Thus, higher education should aim at producing graduates who can help others regardless of race, religion or culture, and not promoting endless competitions with others. The true success is found within good characters of every human being. Being smart is good, but it is useless if the character is poor. What really matters is our personality to do good things and spread the love for humanity. This is in line with words of Confucius, “Learning should be about being and not about having.”

In fact, education should be provided for free to improve the life of society. Only then we can tackle the social issue like poverty. I truly believe that by educating people and equipping them with the right skills like international language, information communication technology (ICT) and character building, only then we will improve their life.

Quoting the Bangkok Declaration on Higher Education: Diversity and Harmonisation at The World University Presidents Summit, which was held from 19 to 23 July 2006, “University must strive to be above politics and business interests and serve their societies and communities by providing a voice and space in which to cultivate rational, mutual and moderate dialogues that will shape intellectual, cultural and economic development on a shared basis within and across boundaries and nations.”

The summit, attended by 1600 delegates including 245 University Presidents from 85 countries, clearly stated that higher education is diverse but it can be harmonised. The harmonisation of higher education can be obtained by acknowledging diversity of higher education systems while simultaneously recognising the significance of regional education cooperation. Different cultures, languages and educational systems are key economic resources of the 21st century.

As universities compete globally to attract students, higher education continues to grow as demanded. Rankers like QS World University Rankings® might set indicators, such as academic peer review, employer reputation, faculty/student ratio, citations per faculty, international student and international staff ratio to determine the best university. However, why do we limit the indicators for success while we have different philosophy of education? We do not need to be the Harvard or the Cambridge of the East while we have different cultures and values of excellence.

Ranking, like in the real game, is fickle. As a result, someone moves up or someone moves down depending on the nature of the game and the performance of the players. So, at the end of the day, ranking does not really matter. ***

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