Tuesday, October 10, 2006

VC Comments: Do they make sense?

As promised, more on the local reaction to the latest THES rankings. The VCs from UM, UKM, UPM and the deputy VC from USM all came together for a press conference to give their reaction to the rankings. It's time to dissect and take apart what they were reported to have said and to see if what they said made sense.

First of all, let's look at what didn't make sense. From a Star report:

USM deputy VC (academic and international affairs) Prof Datuk Rosihan M. Ali, who represented the VC Prof Datuk Dr Dzulkifl Abdul Razak who was out of the country, said that public universities were “probably disadvantaged” by the student-staff ratio criterion, which carries a 20% weight.

I don't know why USM keeps resorting to this excuse. It's not as if the student-staff ratio in USM is that much different compared to other public universities like UKM and UM. Tony highlighted in this post during the same time last year that the student-staff ratio was not the main reason why USM fell so dramatically.

UKM and UM scored 25 and 24 respectively on the student-faculty ratio in 2006. USM figures were not available as it did not make the top 200 in 2006 but it had the same score as UM in the 2004 rankings thus making the student-staff ratio excuse a rather weak one. Furthermore, UKM and UM actually scored higher on this category than the following universities which were ranked in the Top 50 in the overall rankings: NUS (22), University of Toronto (15), University of Texas at Austin (19), Sydney University (23), Monash University (21), University of New South Wales (20), Queensland University (18), University of British Columbia (19). Certainly, one cannot say that UKM, USM or UM are overly hampered by their respective student-staff ratios, which are probably very similar. If the VCs were to examine the comparative scores in the individual categories, they would find that this particular score was not responsible for the relatively low rankings of our public universities.

Surprisingly, the other comments and responses of the VCs seem well thought out and show that they have a better understanding of how the ranking system works.

From the same Star report:

USM's Deputy VC, Prof Rosihan pointed out that the scores of universities ranked from 100 to 200 tended to be very close, sometimes as low as 0.2%.

This of course calls into question whether one can say that a 150 ranking is substantially better than a 200 ranking or that a 250 ranking is substantially better than a 400 ranking. Tony has highlighted this previously.

“The position is derived from a relative score and the rank therefore depends not only on one's performance but also in relation to the performance of other universities and whether the ranking criteria and weights have changed.

“Thus, even if a university were to perform better than 2005 in each of the component, the ranking may drop if other universities perform even better.”

Again, very true. UM's score, normalized against Harvard's, actually improved from 23.5 in 2005 to 28.6 in 2006. UM scored better in the recruiter's review (from 0 to 14), in the international faculty score (from 12 to 14) and in the faculty-student ratio (from 8 to 24). Whether these increases are due to changes in methodology on the part of QS (for example in the sampling of recruiters, calculation of who is a faculty member) is still uncertain but the fact is that UM's score did increase. The problem was, as correctly identified by the VCs, is that the scores of the other universities increased as well and in UM's case, increased by a greater margin compared to UM.

Again, USM's Deputy VC:

“Getting into the top 50 will be a difficult feat, we need to focus on the peer review, number of citations and the recruiter review for us to be in the top 50,’’ he said.

The citations per faculty score comprises 20% of the overall score and UKM and UM scored a 0 and 1 respective on this count. To have any hope of breaking into the top 50, this score has to rise which means more publications in internationally renowned journals (which means publishing in English).

The peer review score, which comprises a massive 40% of the overall score is key towards improving one's overall standing. If our universities can improve its public standing vis-a-vis other universities in Asia, then these scores can rise since the sampling of respondents seem to take on a regional dimension when it comes to tabulating this score.

It is also important to note that the VCs themselves have downplayed somewhat the importance of these rankings and saying that there are other criteria that needs to be examined. But at the same time, they did not run away from the implications of these rankings. This particular statement seemed enlightened by Malaysian standards:

“We may question the validity and reliability of the data on international students and faculty, but we cannot ignore the data on peer review, employer or recruiter review, faculty-student ratio and the citation index.

“Public universities may not be able to increase their international students because of government policies but we certainly can do a lot to improve the performance on the other four criteria,'' said the universities.

Finally, I think the most positive note we can take from the press conference were the following 'action points' outlined by the VCs:

Encouraging academics to maintain a high profile amongst peers in their discipline by publishing their research in high impact journals, presenting papers at regional and international meetings

Rewarding academics who increase the reputation of the university when invited as keynote speakers, expert group members or to be part of an international research group and those who produce research products which are patented or commercialised.

Developing a database of active researchers and directory of expertise and keeping the websites current

Enhancing the perception of employers by strengthening university-industry linkages, improving the proficiency of English among students and encouraging students to master at least one other language, reviewing the curriculum to emphasise soft skills, intercultural studies, industrial attachment and international credit transfer

Forging international linkages, networking and joint projects such as double and split degrees among universities

While I am question the efficacy of certain details in the above action plan, I think that taken as whole, the thrust of the plan is positive and forward looking.

While we continue to question some aspects of the THES rankings (including why my own university, Duke, shouldn't have been ranked so highly because of a wrongly entered score - Thanks to Richard Holmes for this observation), it could have acted as a catalyst towards kickstarting substantive reform in our public universities. Or perhaps I'm too much of an optimist?


daniel said...

What was said, if put into action would be a reasonable start to some improvement to our local unis. I think that while the VCs are now aware of the different rankings from THES and others, it is not healthy to gear uni operations just to cater for a better position in the list, lest we end up like the clueless ex-vice chancellor of UKM who thinks that enhancing the UKM website contributes to a better ranking.

The unis should collectively draw up a proper benchmark for academic staffing and (I still believe that content is king) proper, up-to-date and relevant curricula for the courses they offer.

Undergraduate recruitments must be based on merit because when you have garbage in, it is almost destined that you get garbage out. Do not turn away qualified applicants to fill racial agendas because these will be the graduates who will be contributing to the good rankings of the top unis.

If the quality of our local graduates are up to international standard, the THES and other rankings while relevant shall cease to be all-important.

Anonymous said...

I summed up the fate of our once illustrious UM as the poem about humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall,
Humpty dumpty had a great fall,
All the kings men couldn't put humpty dumpty together again

Anonymous said...

We are going to space with our teh tarik and roti canai and will probably put a man on the moon by 2020. The later one is the mission/vision of MOSTI. So who says our universities are not world class.

Anonymous said...

I met the VC of a major provincial university during my recent trip to China. He said that he had personally led a number of delegations in their visits to world famous universities like Princeton and Oxford. Now I believe that his activities might have been part of the university's PR exercise to improve the Peer Review score.