Ranking the state of higher education

Published: February 26, 2012

The writer is assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University and tweets @mhzaman

The Higher Education Commission has recently come out with the rankings of Pakistan’s universities. Rankings are the latest trend in the world of higher education across the globe. With the rankings crowning some unsung heroes and dethroning others, I am sure many will comment on why such and such university did not make the top 10 and why so and so did. That analysis would be interesting, but my problem is slightly different, and perhaps more fundamental. I am concerned about the value and design of the entire process.

Firstly, I am not convinced that rankings provide any insights into the overall state or the quality of higher education in the country. The HEC has described the ranking criteria on its website.

As an academic, I am not sure how this set of criteria tells anything about the state of higher education in the country. The data may be useful in terms of policy making and identifying areas that need to be improved but rankings using the HEC scorecard offers little in terms of overall state of the field.

Second, I find it rather interesting (or perhaps ironic) that an organisation that is the main source of funds for research at the universities — as it plays a major role in accrediting the universities, sets standards for the curriculum, sends many of the university faculty for higher education — also gets to rank them. Let us compare this mechanism with other ranking institutions. The most common rankings in the US are through US News and World Report, which happens to be a newspaper. Times Higher Education also does not provide resources to universities or scholarships for PhD. Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), the latest entry into the business of ranking is a company and does not accredit universities or gives any competitive research grants. The move by the HEC would be similar to the National Science Foundation, or the National Institutes of Health in the US ranking the very universities they fund. This would not be acceptable both by the academics, or by the institutions themselves. While there is plenty of discussion, both within and outside Pakistan, about the real value of rankings, the move by the HEC may seem at best, counterintuitive, and at worst, a serious conflict of interest.

Now this takes me to the final point of rankings itself. While I am sure the HEC agonised over the surveys and the data and tried to come up with a fair system, I am not convinced that one can put universities from various categories into a single ‘overall ranking’ category. I understand that there are also subject-specific rankings, but the overall ranking is not only misleading, it is inherently flawed. Having a university focused exclusively on medical sciences in the same overall pile as a university of arid agriculture is quite baffling. If we use any metric, whether it is research grants, faculty publications, number of students graduated or any other quantitative metric, universities with completely different foci and areas of interest can not, and should not be compared. Using the US example, a place where I have worked in academia for a number of years, this would be like comparing a school of medicine, lets say Baylor College of Medicine, a highly respected medical school, with Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) another powerhouse in its field. But they have nothing in common and should never, ever be measured by the same yardstick. One may argue that since we have so few universities, we have to come up with an overall category or ‘large university category’ or something similar. That very argument makes this whole exercise futile. If we have such few universities that we have to lump them together, then why bother ranking them? Statistically, it is inaccurate and academically it is incomprehensible.

If the HEC is truly concerned with the state of higher education, as it should be, a better way to start would be by using the data gathered from these surveys to formulate policy to improve areas of deficiency and create task forces to address them. Some progress has been made in this area but a lot more needs to be done to improve the state of affairs. Ranking universities is not going to tell anything about the state of higher education or do anything to improve the overall state. After all, a beauty pageant is hardly the way to solve the problems of women in society!

Published in The Express Tribune, February 27th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (18)

  • Nadir
    Feb 26, 2012 - 11:57PM

    Rankings are nothing more than a ploy to narrowly define the quality of an educational institution. A neat and yet at the same time poor attempt in commodifying education. However, the reason why rankings work is not because they are accurate, but because people are emotionally invested in their place of learning and emotively respond to rankings such as the ones the HEC has created. However, as HEC’s ranking shows, they can be a departure between what is good on paper, and what is good in terms of perception. However, it ignores students as it assumes that students can be neatly stacked into the very best to the very worst, while ignoring that learning is not a function of an institutions place on a list. I am sure there are very good and very bad experiences of learnings amongst the very top and bottom institutions, but as consumers we purchase a brand, and that is what all the fuss is about. We would be better of without them, for universities in the end focus more on the metrics that constitute a ranking.


  • Zara
    Feb 27, 2012 - 12:00AM

    Good point. I never realized that HEC is both the provider and then the judge –wow! it would be like government providing to various provinces, giving little to balochistan, and then based on how little it provides to Balochistan, it would rank the province at the lowest point. That would be unethical and so inappropriate — oh wait, the government already does that!


  • Ali
    Feb 27, 2012 - 12:00AM

    Ranking should be void of quota if it has to make any significant difference.


  • Sara
    Feb 27, 2012 - 12:04AM

    Great points Dr. Zaman. I am not sure how can HEC rank universities that are exclusively undergrad versus universities that are just grad. Not sure how can you rank agriculture against business, medicine against IT and put them all in the same category?? They should know better.


  • Nowsherwan
    Feb 27, 2012 - 12:05AM

    Just curious, how did the last rankings helped the higher education sector in any way? Can someone please tell me, or show real data how rankings improved the higher education in Pakistan? Agree with you Dr. Zaman on all points.


  • Falcon
    Feb 27, 2012 - 12:10AM

    Great article. I think in addition to moving the responsibility of ranking to a third-party and making rankings field specific, the parameter base used in ranking itself needs to be expanded and comparable benchmarks need to be published as well so that we can compare the quality of our education with regional and global players.


  • Zain
    Feb 27, 2012 - 12:18AM

    The whole thing is fishy and bogus — HEC gives funds to university — then ranks them and creates a perception of good and bad — this perception then leads to students and faculty going to that university — who in turn depend on HEC for scholarships and funds — good faculty at these “highly ranked places” wants to do research — go to HEC for research funds — research leads to new publications — publications are ranked by HEC — number of publications affect HEC ranking, and this is supposed to improve our higher education?


  • Professor
    Feb 27, 2012 - 12:43AM

    The author is right that this whole exercise is “futile” and meaningless.If you look at their criteria it is very clear that they have highlighted only the things that THEY want universities to do (for example, number of PhDs produced irrespective of quality or what happens to them. No measure of the quality of anything. Only measures of quantity. So you get the result you get. Just look at what is INSIDE the rankings and it becomes clear. No questions about quality of teaching or quality of jobs people get or about quality of teachers or even quality of research. For example, one recent example was GCU who produced 55 PhDs in just one year but does not even have half that number of PhDs on their faculty. As someone who has a PhD from one of the best universities in USA I know exactly what it takes to get a PhD and how this number is just ridiculous.


  • Doctor
    Feb 27, 2012 - 2:06AM

    Very well written article. I am a shocked that the head of HEC, who has worked in the US for such a long time, would insist that these rankings, which are a blatant conflict of interest, are good for the higher education. Dr. Leghari should know very well that NSF, NIH and other grant giving federal agencies in the US are never going to rank the very institutions they are helping build and rebuild. It is just pathetic on part of the HEC to do that. The problems highlighted by Dr. Zaman, are right on target.


  • Haider Hussain
    Feb 27, 2012 - 10:05AM

    As an academic, I am not sure how this set of criteria tells anything about the state of higher education in the country

    I don’t expect such a naive comment from an “acedamic”. Sir jee, these rankings show the state of higher education in a particular institution relative to other instituion. These are NOT MEANT to tell anything about the state of higher education in the country per se. For that, one has to compare state of higher eduction in different countires.


  • Ather Zaidi
    Feb 27, 2012 - 10:43AM

    I agree with Hamid that HEC, as the main resource-provider to Pakistani universities, should use the available data for strengthening the weaker areas of individual institutions, rather than using it for a counter-productive exercise.


  • anticorruption
    Feb 27, 2012 - 12:13PM

    Very good article. Another issue is that even if we compare universities in the same discipline and the same degree program, it is still important to take into account the differences in their goals. For example, the admission policies of one institution may be totally on merit, those of another may involve some kind of special quotas for different provinces, whereas yet another university (such as Behria) may be giving preferencial treatment to the children of people in the armed forces rather than merit. Is it fair to rank the three on the same scale when they have such different goals? Also, has the state of law and order (in terms of the role of violant student groups) been included in the rankings?


  • Hira Zulfiqar
    Feb 27, 2012 - 2:29PM

    I would like to add a point which was cleared by HEC that There are 17 Universities who have not submitted Data for ranking.
    So if these Universities are not interested then why do we blame HEC for that?

    HEC is doing its bit quite good i think.


  • sahib
    Feb 27, 2012 - 3:34PM

    @Haider — if you see read what the Director of HEC of said, he does say that this is supposed to provide the state of higher education of the entire country. You would be right if he said that this tells the state of one institution — he makes it clear that he means the “state of higher education” of the system. Also, the other point is you can not just compare institutions randomly as the author notes above. How can one compare AKU with arid agriculture university in Faisalabad? That just doesnt make sense.


  • uzman ch
    Feb 27, 2012 - 4:02PM

    ranking the different universities never means that HEC is biased or something like that. It just gives one a notion that what seems to be good on paper doesnot necessarialy means that it is also great on ground basis. It is a kind of appriciation for the institutes that are toiling hard for their students. Moreover the criteria used by HEC is almost similar to that used by the QS times for ranking all over the world.


  • Sobia
    Feb 27, 2012 - 5:16PM

    @Uzma. Good point about bias. I dont think they are biased so I agree with you — but the problem is not only what criteria they used, but also who used it. HEC should hire/ get an outside body to do this if it has to have legitimacy. I dont see why HEC needs to do it themselves. Also, I am sure you will agree that the rankings used to rank the world universities have to look at various other factors than rankings within a country. Just look at rankings of universities within the US, UK, Australia and even China — the yardstick is optimized for local needs, and not just copied from elsewhere.


  • Feb 27, 2012 - 7:36PM

    I am not surprised with the HEC report as they did this for the tick box only as in Pakistan we just love this culture.


  • Adil Rizvi
    Mar 3, 2012 - 4:20PM

    The HEC should a sincronised policy for ranking universities. This is the better task to improve our education in each city.


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