Thursday, August 25, 2005

Universiti Malaya: 89th or Nowhere?

The World University Rankings published by The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) on November 2004 ranked Universiti Malay (UM) as the 89th best university in the world. [You can download the THES PDF report here.] Whilst it’s not the world’s top twenty, it’s a “remarkable” achievement for it beat the likes of top universities in the United Kingdom (UK) such as Bristol University (91st), King’s College, London (96th), Bath University (103rd), Glasgow University (112th) and Durham University (128th).

Note that these UK universities belong to the top 20 universities in the UK, accordingly to the Times Good University Guide 2006. The above-mentioned universities are ranked 10th, 16th, 13th, 20th and 10th respectively. So does this mean that an education in Universiti Malaya will be equivalent to a top ten university in the UK? From the rankings guide provided by THES, it does appear so. [Note that while the publisher of both guides is The Times of UK, the research team and methodology used are completely independent]. A check with the alternative Guardian UK University Rankings Guide 2005 yields similar results.

It is hence unsurprising that during the centennial celebrations on July 16th, the UM Vice-Chancellor, Prof Dr Hashim Yaacob celebrated proudly the achievement of being ranked 89th in the world. The Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak at the celebrations, proudly “challenged” University of Malaya to be ranked among the top 50 universities by 2020.

However, how credible is the rankings provided by THES? I have my major doubts.
  • For example, there is no way that a law degree is worth more than one from say, Durham, King’s College, Glasgow or Bristol University which are ranked 3rd, 8th, 12th and 16th respectively on the Times Good University Guide subject rankings for Law in the UK. These universities, often require a minimum entry criteria of at least B-B-B for ‘A’ Levels which is significantly higher than that required by UM.

  • My doubts are strengthened by the fact that certain universities which I rate only as mediocre are placed highly in the THES World University Rankings. For example, Monash University is ranked 33rd and is placed higher then New South Wales (UNSW) and Sydney University, ranked 36th and 40th respectively. My personal opinion of Monash is derived from the fact that recent graduates from the university are of poor standard (and these are the ones with “decent” grades given by the university). The performance of Monash graduates in my office is only average, and many more do not make the cut past the interview stage. I believe that the standards at Monash have declined very significantly over the past 4-5 years due to over-commercialisation of their degree programmes as well as the lowering of entry criteria into the university.

  • If one were to review the methodology [page 6 of the THES report entitled “Elements that paint a portrait of global powers”] used in deriving the rankings, it would appear that the methodology is a tad simplistic and may include highly subjective factors which have significant impacts on the rankings outcome. In fact, 50% weightage is provided to 1,300 academics from 88 countries in a “survey” to identify “top institutions in the areas and subjects on which they felt able to make an informed judgement”. The problem with surveys, as always, is that objectivity will often be diluted significantly. For example, a “C” level academic will rate what is “A” class differently from say, an “A” level academic. By placing a 50% weightage on this survey alone to justify world university rankings clearly results in some of the major discrepancies I see in the THES Ranking Table.

  • In addition, it is noted in the THES methodology that 5% of the weightage is given to the “internationality” of the university campus, defined by the number of foreign students. The rationale is that if the university is in international demand, then it must be pretty good. The rationale is clearly flawed as the number of foreign students enrolled in a campus is not only defined by its quality, but also be other major factors such as affordability, convenience of access, entry level criteria etc. Hence, it isn’t surprising that Monash performed slightly better then UNSW and Sydney University due to its international commercialisation exercises such as its twinning programmes with private colleges as well as the setting up of foreign campuses such as Sunway Monash in Malaysia.
Given that Universiti Malaya could not have performed well in the criteria such as the number of international students (5%), the number of international faculty members (5%) and it would only have performed “so-so” for its faculty-students ratio (20%) and possibly poorly for the number of research reports and citations (20%) – UM must have achieved its “credible” rankings largely from the survey conducted. In fact, Universiti Sains Malaysia performed credibly at 111th. A few academics from Malaysia must certainly have participated in the survey exercise. J

If Universiti Malaya is indeed ranked 89th in the world, and is better than some of the universities I have cited above, Malaysian students and their parents will save a great deal of hard-earned monies in enrolling into premier universities overseas.

In the part II post of this same title, I will highlight another world university rankings table compiled by the Institute of Higher Education, Shanghai Jiao Tung University that is often cited internationally. How does Universiti Malaya and other Malaysian universities fare in that table?

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