The Higher Education Commission has recently announced the rankings of the countries’ higher education institutions (HEIs) again. Ranking of universities started in the last quarter of the last century. Among the most famous are the pioneering efforts of the Shanghai-based Jiao Tong University which created the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU). But this ranking was suitable only for science, and not all branches of it either, as one of the criteria used was publication in journals like Nature and Science. Another one was academic awards won by the faculty but these too were established mostly for scientific subjects.
Among the rankings used nowadays are the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) world university rankings and the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. The former used peer reviews by 33,744 academics in 2011 and these took citations per faculty member from Scopus (40 per cent). It also counted the faculty-to-student ratio (20 per cent) and the presence of international students and faculty on the campus (five per cent) plus taking certain other things into consideration. The gist of all this is that universities are ranked mostly for research as if all of them were research universities. My contention is that some universities should be ranked in this manner and should be called ‘research universities’. Others should be ranked for quality teaching and should be called ‘teaching universities’ while still others should be ranked separately, again for teaching, and be called ‘university colleges’. While the research universities should be completely autonomous, the teaching universities should be controlled by some office for quality control and the university colleges should have stricter control and even have their courses controlled by some central body. In Pakistan this may be the HEC.
So, my major criticism against ranking is that all universities should not be ranked according to the same criteria. More specifically, the ranking criteria used at present is questionable. This time there are 60 marks for Quality Assurance and Enhancement (QA) and 40 for research. In the first criteria, there are 18 marks for implementation of QA criteria laid out by the HEC and 42 for teaching quality. The problem is that the HEC gives marks to universities for implementing its policies. The policies in themselves are good because they are against plagiarism (6 marks), eligibility of appointment of faculty (4 marks) and criteria for M.Phil and PhD programmes (4 marks). There are also four marks for creating a QA cell. That this takes away the autonomy of universities, does not seem to be a problem for anyone any longer. Even so, I would have accepted the first two conditions but there is no need for forcing everyone to follow the American model of teaching courses at the research degree level, nor should all universities have to have a QA cell.
Let us now come to teaching quality. I agree with all points except that the PhD output should have nine marks. The fact is that, most of our Ph.Ds are substandard and by producing them we are risking our academic future for half-a-century. Instead of sending eligible students to good universities to get their doctorates, we are promoting mediocrity here. This is a wrong policy, and the sooner the HEC changes it, the better. Moreover, if we do agree that student evaluations matter then why are there no marks for those faculty members who get high marks in these evaluation reports consistently over time? There should be marks for this, as well as for evaluation by the peer group (as in seminars).
And now let us look at the criteria for research. The marks for HEC-approved supervisors (five in all) need not be there at all. First, it is wrong in principle and degrading for university professors to be approved by the HEC. All a supervisor needs is to be approved by the university’s own academic bodies. Secondly, this power with the HEC degrades academics by making them run to the HEC for favours. Similarly, the criterion of having indigenous scholars studying in the university (four marks) is questionable because research degrees are themselves the weak point of our universities as mentioned above. I also do not see why HEC research grants and travel grants should carry two points each. If one publishes research and reads out papers in conferences without burdening the poor people of Pakistan, is it not better? Moreover, perhaps out of self-respect, maybe some people do not even apply for HEC funds. If they do travel and publish despite this handicap are they to be commended or deprived of marks — and is their university to be punished for their sensitiveness, self-respect, scrupulousness or delicacy.
The number of journals published by a university is also misleading. Most of them are of very uneven quality so, instead of encouraging quantity, should we not encourage quality, i.e., journals which are cited though they may be very few. I am appalled that publication in impact factor journals should carry only five marks. And I am also surprised that top-level journals not on the ISI index have not been mentioned. Most surprising is that there is no mention of citations at all. Publication is less important than citation and I am sure this is well-known even to the HEC. So, what kind of marks are we giving to research if we give no marks for citations? Citations for social scientists are available at google.scholar.com.
My view is that there should be two criteria: teaching and research. Under teaching we should include student-teacher ratio, ratio of foreign PhD faculty to total faculty, admission of students after a GRE type of test; number of computers, library facilities, laboratory facilities and evaluation by students and peers (if allowed by the faculty). Under research we should count the number of publications (articles in journals, books, chapters in books, entries in reference books) and citations. Papers read out in conferences should carry some weight but only if one is paid by the hosts of the conference only. Last, but definitely the most important point is that two-room shacks simply need not be given the status of a university college, let alone a university, to begin with. This should not be a matter of marks; it should be a minimum requirement. Marks may be given for infrastructure after the minimum standards are complied with. To conclude, for research universities the marks for research should be 70 and teaching only 30 while for teaching universities, they should be the opposite i.e for teaching 70 and research 30. For university colleges teaching should carry 90 marks and research only 10. These varying criteria should be more realistic and fair than the ones used by the HEC at the moment.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 6th, 2012.