The darker side of university rankings

UNIVERSITIES are facing tremendous pressure not only to reassess their curriculum but to restructure as well. Much of this is due to the onslaught of neo-liberal policies that had swept the planet from the Reagan and Thatcher years. The premise behind neo-liberalism is the marketisation and commodification of everything.

In so far as higher education is concerned, universities have to reorient and restructure from producing research and offering theoretical, scientific, and moral education to producing vocationally trained graduates who can get good jobs and pay taxes. In the neo-liberal education paradigm, “students” are now known as “customers” who are on the lookout for universities that offer the best value for money. This is where the craze in the rankings of universities comes in.

Every year, universities anxiously await the release of higher education rankings, and every year Harvard and Princeton are tied for top spot. But who determines that Harvard and Princeton are the best in the world? What is the methodology used?

The methodology used is flaky. Twenty-five per cent of a university’s score, for example, is based on its reputation. Another 25% on peer review or what administrators in other universities think about it. Every year universities are told to evaluate each other, and every year ranking agencies are willing to offer “advice” on how universities can improve their rankings. What the rankings game does is to divert universities from concentrating on their core activity that is teaching and learning and to focus on becoming a corporate university.

Under the neo-liberal education, universities are becoming cheap vocational schools. The vocational focus of higher education implies the centrally planned expansion of marketable programmes and the elimination of or radical reduction of theoretical fields such as classics, history of science, and philosophy. Non-marketable disciplines and unpopular sub-disciplines that have lower rates of graduation, most notably the arts, humanities and social sciences are under pressure to be eliminated from universities altogether.

The ranking exercise and curriculum reshuffling are in essence, self-contradictory as one policy undermines the other. The Ministry of Higher Education wishes our universities to move up in the rankings but they want to turn universities into vocational schools by teaching students skills that are in demand and dumbing down the curriculum.

While policymakers are trying to play catch up with Western universities, they are also aggressively enacting huge budget cuts. The cuts to the public universities system are devastating. They risk killing disciplines deemed “useless” and losing exceptional talents. Classes may be cut from course schedules and perhaps what is more alarming is the possibility of transforming public universities into corporations. What is most apparent is that the massive budget cuts will cripple a university system that already struggles to serve its students. This brings us back to my point at the outset – neo-liberal policies coupled with the rankings game are doing more harm than good to our higher education system. Narrow, vocational education without research has been advocated as a money saving policy. Never mind that narrow vocational training creates unemployment. Over specialised vocational training produces workers who can only do one thing. When technology advances or production moves elsewhere, they are unprepared for alternatives.

A flexible, non-vocational general training can be more conducive to obtaining employment in the long run. American liberal arts colleges are not known for producing unemployed graduates – had that been the case, their tuition fees would have plummeted, or they would have gone bankrupt. That higher-education institutions are at a crossroads is almost self-evident. Should they go down the road where publishing papers in prestigious foreign journals which will surely see their position moving up in the rankings, and start forcing their staff to achieve their KPI target or should they concentrate on knowledge production as an end in itself? At the rate things are going, it seems that higher education policies will be guided by the ethos of neo-liberalism. Public universities will be starved to death and will then be forced to act like a corporation killing the Humboldtian autonomous system.

Under the business model, public universities will have to sacrifice either teaching or research. Nevertheless, teaching without research quickly becomes outdated and is uncreative and unimaginative. The students memorise data but do not learn how to produce knowledge and how to innovate. Research without the need to explain and systematise results and methods for students remain in large part a means of accumulating only private, underdeveloped insight. Obsessing to publish in prestigious foreign journals that are beyond the reach of the public and striving to fulfil KPI targets will only reward the tangibles and at the expense of intangibles with the risk of trying to game the indicators of excellence as being excellent. This will only give a false impression of being excellent. What is more, many highly educated people in the higher learning institutions, who should know better, honestly believe that the neo-liberal policies will yield positive results.

Associate Professor Dr Azeem Fazwan Ahmad Farouk is the director at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia.