Tables arrangements may be a distraction

Focus on league tables could shift Middle Eastern universities from honourable priorities, argues Cesar Wazen

June 5, 2014

As a rookie in the fast-growing empire of rankings, I struggled to make sense of the different systems used and the rationales behind them.

I was starting to be convinced of their importance and the fact that humans are naturally inclined to understand things through numbers and order.

For as much as I am fine with this when it comes to the greatest cities to live in, my best holiday destination or my favourite food, I have found it hard to accept that education, and educational institutions, can be put in a specific order, from best to worst according to a given set of criteria.

There are many questions and doubts, but I would like to focus on those specific to the region I come from, the Middle East.

We have – at least we think we have – successful educational systems with prominent universities. Relatively speaking, we are arguably the region that “exports” the most well-developed and well-rounded brains for graduate studies in the West. All this, with very few of our universities appearing in the upper reaches of world university rankings.

My main issue with rankings rests on the fact that they do not take into consideration “area specific” criteria, even when they think they do. Some use the same criteria for worldwide as well as regional rankings, while others try to boost some regions by introducing student exchange weightings. However, some regions riven by war and conflict will, by their nature, achieve a low score.

Asia, for example, is a varied continent, containing countries as different and distinct as China and India, and Lebanon and Jordan. Any ranking that tries to introduce specific measures for this “region” will struggle to take account of its diversity of nations, societies and universities.

In addition, the perception of good universities in our part of the world is based on employability, not research. A good education for our kids means a good job and a good salary. The thinking is: “the best university is the one that prepares you best for the job market” and not, “the best university is the one that prepares you best for research skills”.

The mission of universities in our region is to provide communities with “cadres” rather than researchers. We teach medical students to practise in rural areas, preventing epidemics, rather than have them do research in labs.

We educate students to graduate as engineers and to build our countries or rebuild the ruins of successive wars. Hence, we cannot be judged only on the volume of research.

That said, my main problem is not the call for rankers to adopt a more “culturally sensitive” tailor-made ranking by region. Rather, it is my fear that the growing importance attached to rankings might threaten a shift in attention from the honourable mission of regional universities to a more ranking-oriented one.

Budget priorities might shift; scholarships may be distributed differently.

Rankings are successful enterprises, hence the need for them to take responsibility in “understanding” different cultures and to have positive rather than negative effects on societies and universities.

Rankings systems have to realise their growing role and the level of responsibility they have in our region before it is too late.

The matter lies simply in the hands of the decision-makers behind the rankings systems: are they willing to do it?

Why not? Well that might be the subject of a whole different article.

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Reader's comments (3)

Thank you, Cesar, for the important points you make. I would add that the answer lies partly in the way we research the issue. The assertion that ‘rankings are here to stay’ appears to be gaining a largely uncritical acceptance among the academic and research communities and is represented as a statement of fact. Much of the published academic research addresses the features of rankings systems directly and proposes functional improvements. Yet there is value in research which looks at how rankings are used in different contexts, how they are shaping practices in HE and (re)defining concepts of excellence. This is something I have been exploring in my doctoral studies.
Thank you Catherine, my problem is more with the universities and academia rather than raking organizations. Lobbying to improve rankings should be imposed by universities, instead, it seems that (as THE proved by posting my article) the ranking organizations themselves are leading the improvement process on their systems! Quite weird I have to say when academics are known for their focus and stubbornness when it comes to preserving standards and improving learning outcomes, don't you think?
This is a really timely piece. Any ranking of individual universities will be context-blind, yet I would argue that the context in which a university operates is all-important. And I would include the mission(s) of the university as part of that context. Most rankings overlook this, as well as the difficult to do comparisons (like teaching quality and teaching impact) meaning that judgments of the value of a university should not be limited to rankings of individual universities alone. The U21 Ranking of National Higher Education Systems (www.universitas21.com/rankings) is a step on the way to examining context, including the use of data comparing countries at a similar stage of economic development.

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