Faulty fixation

Published: September 17, 2019


PHOTO: EXPRESS The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

Imagine if a group sitting in France — that is actually a tyre company — is in the business to give out stars for the world’s best restaurants, and it decides that one food outlet in Pakistan deserves a star. For the sake of simplicity, let us call it a Michelin star. Great! Now let us think what that honour might say about access to food by the most deserving, or the general quality of food in our restaurants, or the general state of restaurants in the country — exactly nothing! Having just one “top doctor” in the city does not make the city any healthier.

The university ranking façade is no different. Every year, several outlets, some in Asia and others in the US or Europe, decide to tell the whole world what are some of the best universities around. It is supposedly based on a set of metrics and an algorithm and some fuzzy unclear weight of various factors. There is no actual engagement with ground realities, student experience, quality of teaching, the impact institutions may have on local communities or how successful they are compared to their mission and vision. Bringing education to low income or marginalised communities, or having first-generation students who are going to have a better shot at success counts for exactly zero points. A lot has been written about the flawed metrics, and I am no fan of the list either. The list does not change much from year to year and reaffirms what we already know. But the metrics are only part of the problem, the real problem in Pakistan is how we interpret this list and think about what rankings actually mean.

As the list from the Times Higher Education Rankings (which is a newspaper and not an academic institution) came out earlier this month, the usual statements were made by the usual suspects. They went something like this, “there is no university from Pakistan in the top 300”, “none from OIC in the top 200”, etc. But what if there was one university in the top 200? Would that change the sorry state of affairs in our higher education? What if one Pakistani university became one of the worlds’ best? How would that address our real challenges or solve our complex problems? And what if one institution is 201, not 199 — would that mean that the institution has fallen off the cliff?


Higher education and research have to be thought through the lens of a system, and not a mere number. Even if there was a single institution that met the arbitrary criteria of a newspaper on what qualifies as “top”, the acute challenges facing the country would not wither away. Our problems are rooted in access and quality and we do poorly on both. We have to train people to be thoughtful, rigorous and equipped with the best tools of analysis.

Unfortunately, when political leaders (such as a former planning minister), journalists and even university leadership make a big deal about individual university ranking as the be-all and end-all, it is a disservice to the core mission of the institution and the system as a whole. On the one end, it undermines the role a university ought to play in creating a more equitable society and on the other masks the deeper problem in the system. Instead of chasing a number we should go after the ground fundamentals such as rigour, integrity in research, access to resources and creating a climate of genuine inquiry even if they lead to inconvenient answers. If we get these right, rankings will follow automatically.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 17th, 2019.

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