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.