Rethink and redesign our entire education ecosystem

3 December 2018

Rethink and redesign our entire education ecosystem

Opinion piece by Tan Sri Dato' Sri Paduka Dr Limkokwing on the urgent need for Malaysia to address the growing influence of ranking organisations on universities.

The future is turning out to be an amazing leap into changes that defy our best imagination. Almost every sector of human life is undergoing a transformation that is unprecedented. The idea is to mould Malaysians into a whole new social order of empowered citizens able to meet challenges with extraordinary creativity and daring innovation. For that, we will need to rethink and redesign our entire education and training ecosystem to produce the mindset that will forge a new future for the nation.

We must build a system that will bridge rural-urban disparity and empower a new generation with high skills and confidence to think and act in extraordinary ways in response to the extraordinary challenges of our time.

The immediate threat to creating this environment lies in embracing the standards set by others to gain the status we think we need. By doing so, we endanger our progress by limiting our resources and restricting our ingenuity in handling issues that are peculiar to our nation and culture.

The global ranking of universities is one prime example of how Malaysian institutions of higher education are being lulled into designing themselves to fit into a so-called “world-class” labelling that, in truth, impedes their ability to deliver the best learning environment to their students. This global ranking began in earnest in 2003 and today there are some 17 such ranking agencies developed by commercial, quite often media-based, companies. Only about 7% of the 17 global agencies are developed by government organisations.

The yardsticks they use to benchmark the quality and set the rankings essentially measure research performance. The top three global ranking agencies are Times Higher Education (THE), Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) and Shanghai Jiao Tong (ARWU). According to calculations by the Higher Education Policy Institute of Britain, over 85% of the measures attached to the THE and QS rankings – and 100% of those of ARWU – are in one way or another research-related.

“Most institutions should be focusing on their students, and a ranking scheme that takes no account of that cannot, as all do, claim to identify the ‘best’ universities,” says the Higher Education Policy Institute, a higher education think tank based in Britain.

Therefore, it is of concern that institutions of higher education have been shaping their systems to fit into a mould dictated by ranking organisations in order to achieve top global ranking. This is happening at the expense of what such institutions are mandated to do in the first place, which is to “educate students”. They have taken great pains to fit their facilities, staffing and research into categories demanded by these organisations. The greater concern is how these rankings are influencing government policy decisions.

According to the Higher Education Policy Institute, the governments of France, Germany, Russia and China, among others, have introduced policies to improve the position of their universities in these ranking exercises. Then, to the selected few, large amounts of money are granted to improve their research – money that could be used elsewhere to improve other aspects of university performance.

“One of the big lessons of global rankings is the extent to which higher education policy and institutional strategies have become vulnerable to an agenda set by others. We ignore this at our peril,” says Ellen Hazelkorn, policy adviser to the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and director of the Higher Education Policy Research Unit (Hepru), Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland.

Singapore, on the other hand, is taking a serious view of this trend. Its International Academic Advisory Panel, comprising presidents and vice-chancellors of universities in Europe, the United States of America and Asia as well as CEOs of global companies, has advised that “Singapore should develop a holistic evaluation framework for its universities instead of being fixated on international rankings.”

Andrew Perkis, a professor of a Norwegian University of Science and Technology, has lamented that the metrics used by the ranking agencies ignore the EU’s science funding programmes – especially Horizon 2020, which includes innovation and industry collaboration – because the outcomes are not measurable in citation indices.

There is an immediate need to address the growing influence of these ranking organisations to ensure local concerns are given priority. Malaysian and Asian perspectives must be an essential part of the campus dialogue to enable young people to be active movers and shakers in building Malaysia’s future. How well these rankings serve Malaysian interests needs to be studied and debated.

Questions are being raised by experts studying the methodology of these ranking agencies: Would it not be far better to “use indicators which align with national social and economic objectives rather than adopting indicators chosen by commercial organisations for their own purposes?” And we echo such views.

What we truly need to do is build our competency to envision change, shape a national culture of empathy, cultivate creativity and prioritise policies that facilitate and expand the Malaysian capacity to progress in its own mould.


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