The bogeyman of academic imperialism in university ranking

By Jamari Mohtar


MUCH has been talked about on university ranking since a study published early this month (Feb 7) found Malaysia in the fifth position among a list of 20 countries with the most numbers of its academics being cited in more than 300 predatory journals in Scopus, a respectable global citation database of scholarly works.

The World University Ranking (WUR) was blamed for this sorry state of affairs because in an attempt to boost their rankings in the international arena, public universities here have allegedly pressured their academics to produce publishable research articles that would be cited in global citation databases such as Scopus or the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) – resulting in the quantity of academic works cited over their quality.

University ranking and the ranking of countries with the most numbers of academics cited in predatory journals are actually two separate issues although closely related.

EMIR Research has written an article on the latter, Predatory journal ranking debatable, which called for the list to be taken with a pinch of salt because of the two basic flaws in the research paper of the two Czech economists who created the list.

There was also an outcry among some prominent academics that the WUR is a form of academic imperialism developed by the West which was imposed globally with the aim of ensuring ideas, individuals and courses associated with these top-notched universities of the West are the standard bearers of knowledge that determine a global higher education hierarchy.

Strong words indeed, coming from these academics, most of whom are ironically alumni of these top-notched western universities.

We live in an era where the West is in the ascendant in many fields including education although some would say that ascendency is waning, so it’s natural the top talents, top universities and top economies are mostly from the West. There’s nothing to be apologetic about this.

Once upon a time when the Muslim civilisation was in the ascendant, it was the Europeans who came flocking to the top-notch universities of the Islamic world then in Baghdad, Egypt and Cordoba.

Had there been a university ranking then, surely these universities in the Muslim world would have top the list and for sure these prominent academics will welcome it and stop pointing a figure at university ranking.

When Vision 2020 was formulated in 1991 with a high income, fully developed country by 2020 underpinning its strategic objective, most of the western countries were then already a developed nation – with naturally a world class higher education system.

By 2020, while we were still haemorrhaging ourselves from achieving that strategic objective, some developing countries in Eastern Europe which were then more or less in the same position as us in 1991, had already leaped and transformed themselves into a developed high-income nation much earlier before 2020. 

So, don’t let academic imperialism be a bogeyman to cover our own weaknesses!

It would seem the cogent reason why academic works are cited by these global databases of scholarly works is to encourage the global blossoming of a research culture that is based on the scientific method propounded by the West which has contributed to their leading position in education.

And thus, citations and research become the two common metrics used in WUR to rank university worldwide.

One of the leading rankers – Times Higher Education (THE) – uses 13 metrics covering five broad areas – teaching (the learning environment), research (volume, income and reputation), citations (research influence), international outlook (staff, students and research) and industry income (knowledge transfer), with greater weightage given to the first three areas at 30% each.

While another ranker, Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), uses six metrics with greater weightage given to academic reputation (40%), with the other five metrics comprise citations per faculty (20%), faculty/student ratio (20%), employer reputation (10%), international study (5%) and international students (5%).

A detailed knowledge on how all these metrics were used by THE and QS can be found on their respective websites. But because they use slightly different metrics, the result of their ranking would obviously be slightly different.

But these different results in ranking are being used by ignorant academics – what a contradiction in terms for academics cannot be ignorant – to prove the existence of a deception akin like a conspiracy theory.

Ever heard of the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO)? The ranking of universities works in the same manner as the ISO where there are rigorous processes of coming up with metrics and applying the metrics to the subject of the study.

Now, if you disagree with the metrics used, that is all right but don’t cast aspersions against the rankers without any solid proofs of hanky-panky in the ranking done.

In fact, if you don’t like their metrics, you can set about doing the ranking yourself with your own set of metrics. But why until today, there is no organisation in Malaysia or for that matter in Muslim countries or Asian countries that can do ranking of all universities in the world using their own set of metrics?

The answer is obvious isn’t it – capacity problem which again proves the point that it is not imperialism of whatever kind that is inhibiting us but simply our own weaknesses.

EMIR Research takes a pragmatic and realistic view that the advantages of having WUR is so that it can be used as a useful guide for prospective undergraduates and their parents in choosing the university of their choice if they ever have the means to study overseas.

Apart from this, the WUR can also be used as a mechanism to allocate private and public funding in the form of research grants for universities, where relatively more funds go to a higher ranked university.

Finally, the WUR could be used to gauge whether a university is playing the crucial national service role in producing workers or talents of the 21st century that are sorely needed by the nation to propel it into a catch-up role with the West in being a high income, fully developed country with the concomitant first world standard in every aspect of lives. 

In this regard, the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) must play a proactive part in ensuring that local universities perform this national service role by drawing up a masterplan that will make the nation on top of its manpower needs especially in the area of expertise in frontier knowledge and digital technologies such as blockchain technology, artificial intelligence and Internet of Things (AIoT), smart contracts and the unmanned sector of the economies such as drone technology, robotics and automation.

Of course, it goes without saying a human and ethical centric approach to creating all these talents of the 21st century must underpin the masterplan with emphasis given also on the humanities studies, so that after our mastery of technology, we don’t become a slave of technology. – Feb 23, 2021



Jamari Mohtar is Director of Media & Communications at EMIR Research, an independent think-tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based upon rigorous research.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.




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