The folly of market-driven values in academia

A LEADING leading English daily had urged our universities to take the necessary steps to ensure that our graduates are employable. The premise behind that statement, in my mind, is fairly straightforward: that the main responsibility of a higher learning institution is to design its curriculum in line with what the market wants. This will in its turn churn out marketable graduates.

In this era whereby democratic capitalism sits on the pantheon of political and economic values, it comes as no surprise that such a mantra is being chanted over and over again.

Whatever happens to the more worthy ideal which envisions a university as an institution that aims to produce knowledge as an end in itself? That has fallen out of fashion in this era that celebrates the capitalist ethos. Indicators that determine the worth of a university include the employability of its graduates. Grants and fellowships are used as signals of faculty members' value. Academics who do not conduct research cannot get research grants, and success in getting them may indicate quality and trendiness. However, grant income must be appraised relative to its corresponding costs. Theoretical fields of study cost less than experimental science. Granting agencies and foundations know this fact and properly apportion less money to them. But the market imperative, out of sheer ignorance or anti-intellectual vandalism simply compares grant income in all fields, they have yet another excuse to say that certain disciplines are unmarketable and eliminate theoretical programmes they do not understand, this time for not producing marketable graduates and not raising as much money as their colleagues in the laboratories. The market mechanism also pays excessive attention to tables and charts that evaluate universities by quantifiable measures.

One of the targets that the Ministry of Higher Education has is to lift our universities' rankings.

Few people who use these charts note the controversial values that underlie them. The most famous one, prepared by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, pertains to the best five hundred universities in the world. The Shanghai criteria are based on an algorithm in which 10% of the weight reflects whether the university's alumni have won a Nobel Prize or a Fields Medal in mathematics, and 20% of the weight reflects whether the university's teachers have won a Nobel Prize or Fields medal.

Because Nobel Prize is awarded in physics, chemistry, physiology/medicine, and economics (Peace and Literature prize winners are rarely academics) and the Fields Medal is in mathematics, the rating is obviously biased in favour of these disciplines.

A weight of 20% reflects how many articles academics have published in the two most prestigious scientific journals, Science and Nature. This criterion biases the rating further in favour of the natural sciences in general. A weight of 20% reflects the quantity of publications in international journals, and another 20% reflects how well cited the published articles are in other articles.

The quantity of institutional publications is a strong indicator of achieving an international level of competence. A shortcoming of this method is that it does not consider books. This feature again a bias in favour of the natural sciences. Original research in the natural sciences is usually published in articles. Scientific books are usually textbooks or popularisations, not groundbreaking new discoveries.

In contrast, books can be and often are the main vehicle for substantial new and original research in the humanities, social sciences, and law, and so in these fields they are valued more highly than articles because they require more research and are read more than articles.

The citation of an article in other articles should indicate its importance, presumably meaning that the article was important enough for other researchers to comment on or base their own research on. Again, however, this criterion does not measure citations in books or of books, which again penalises the fields in which scholars publish books rather than articles. It also cannot take into consideration the reasons for citations or their absence; some articles are cited because they are so outrageously provocative that many people write about why they are so wrong.

Other articles address fashionable topics, but some very good articles may deal with difficult or unpopular topics that do not receive attention. Some articles require their readers to possess advance skills that only a select group of other researchers has. As with other artificially set quotas and targets, the citation count can be gamed by academics who commit to quote each other's articles regardless of quality or relevance.

Finally, 10% weights reflects the university's size. So, put together, these criteria express a clear bias in favour of natural sciences and large universities. Such highly biased criteria are hardly surprising given that they are formulated in a late totalitarian state that builds mega universities that emphasise natural sciences and engineering. It is surprising, however, that the academia the world over, has accepted such a clearly biased ranking. Back to my point at the outset, the unbridled capitalist ethos that only value human beings if, and only, if they are of value to the market must also be rejected. When universities attempt to game their reputation in accordance to the market, they are in effect doing a disservice to humanity.

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