Friday, November 18, 2005

Yes, It Was A Mistake

Finally, the exact "truth" is out of the bag with regards to the controversy over the "achievement" by Universiti Malaya (UM) and Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) world rankings table. The "truth" has been speculated by the bloggers on this site for a long time now, and it's finally confirmed through a Star newspaper report today.

Nunzio Quacquarelli, managing director of QS Quacquarelli Symonds which compiled the rankings, clarified that the mistake occurred because they were not aware of Malaysia’s racial composition.
"Last year, the Chinese and Indian students were classified as foreign nationals; this resulted in Malaysia getting very high marks under the international students category. However, once the marks were adjusted this year, there was a big change of position for both universities."
So that's that. The entire expensive celebrations exercises conducted by UM for the great "achievement" of 89th position, were based based on poor data (which should have been recognised in the first place by any half-decent university academic) is a celebration over a refereeing blunder. A major brouhaha over a non-achievement.

So what's next? As highlighted earlier, UM and USM vice-chancellors are planning a meeting with QS Quacquarelli Symonds on the 21st November.

To give a bit of background to QS, their mission is to to connect educational and corporate "recruiters with graduates, young professionals and experienced executives in the most cost-effective manner. [They] combine web, print and event solutions to help companies and candidates make the match."

Hence, QS is essentially a firm selling MBA and other postgrad programmes on behalf of universities (e.g., organising the TopMBA education fair in Kuala Lumpur currently) as well as a headhunting agency for worldwide multinationals specifically targetting "the most talented international candidates". They are NOT academics or experts in higher education systems per se, but a commercial entity with a research arm which compiles data (most large inernational headhunting firms do).

So, what will the UM and USM administrators obtain out of the meeting with them besides additional confirmation that they made a mistake? I seriously hope that USM is not going to pay money for that information, having reported earlier that they have "engaged" a "London-based consultant".

Putting on a (very) cynical hat, the UM vice-chancellor could possibly do the following:

1. Take legal action against THES and QS for causing UM untold embarrassment and unnecessary expenses incurred for putting up large billboards, banners and print advertisements, on the false pretext of being 89th in the world.

2. Make suggestions to QS to incorporate other criterias which will allow Malaysian universities to perform better. For example, the level of government interference, the level of multi-cultural interaction and exposure and the number of "awards" won at trade fairs (instead of just mere academic citations).

3. Seek and identify potential "loopholes" in the existing methodology which may be "exploited" to achieve better ranking scores. For example, allocating 20% of the undergraduate enrolments to students some country in god-knows where.

4. Engage QS to be an offical consultant to the universities in whatever capacity, in the hope that the Malaysian universities will be shown in a better (and possibly more sympathetic) light.

After all, the "spin" from QS (understandable, as it's a commercial entity seeking new or more business) have begun with the press statement in the Star, trying to "cushion" the impact of the poor overall rankings achieved by the Malaysian universities. The Star article actually started with:
The good news is that two Malaysian universities did not really drop significantly in the world university rankings.
Is that "good news"? Quacquarelli also added that
...despite the sharp fall in its overall position, UM had improved tremendously. If you look at peer review, which accounts for 40% of the marks, UM rose 41 places to 80.
If we are going to hire consultants to improve our universities (not the rankings) and the overall higher education system, then the Ministry of Higher Education should engage genuine and reputable education consultants from any of the top 10 universities of world, and not a headhunting and statistics compilation firm.


Anonymous said...

more fuel added to the fire, aye?
but what if our conniving VC of UM uses this to his advantage? since now it is proven that UM has indeed improved from the previous year! i'd bet my 2cents that that is his next move.

Anonymous said...

How can they made such a mistake? Now I doubt the reliability of the consultancy firm in coming up with rankings.

Anonymous said...

If THES can make a mistake like this, they could very well mis-rank others, maybe the top French University could possibly out-rank the top British University by 30 places...

Oh boy, ranking is such sophomoric obsession.

-- Old Man

Anonymous said...

May I suggest that UM reclassify, for the purpose of this ranking only, all non-Malay students as foreigners?

seb said...

"May I suggest that UM reclassify, for the purpose of this ranking only, all non-Malay students as foreigners?"


Anonymous said...

Actually the guys behind the 2004 ranking just wanted to main-main saja. They thought that the VC and his experts at UM could not be so dumb as not to spot the obvious errors (so high scores in international students and faculty members – surely the VC must know his own university well enough [furthermore, he was the Deputy VC, Students’ Affair, before he became the VC] to realize that the scores were wrong; unless he was ignorant of his own university’s affair, which does not speak too good about him and his experts, or worse, he was aware of the errors but pretended that the scores were correct, tricked the government and citizens, and went to town celebrating the fallacy, especially in conjunction with UM’s 100 years celebration, and claimed to be his leadership that led to this achievement) and would contact them to rectify the wrong interpretation of the status of the Chinese and Indian students in UM. In fact, it turned out that some of our bloggers were smarter and saw the bluff.

Now UM VC can claim that there is a plot (specifically whose? care to guess?) to trick and embarrass him, because the guys behind the plot obviously did not have the brain to foresee that he and his experts at UM did not have the brain to spot the obvious errors. The VC and his experts at UM were baited or seduced and fell for the trap. Oh, what a blow to all the sweet celebrations! Must sue the guys behind the plot and claim some compensation and maruah lah!