Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Idris Jusoh Should Learn What's "World Class" Education

Deputy Education Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh should stop making a mockery of our Higher Education system by liberally interpreting what is “world class” and selectively highlighting statistics which are favourable to the local universities.

Despite being mocked publicly for his statement that Malaysia has “world class higher education”, Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh continued to dig trenches to defend his fantastic claim.

The Deputy Education Minister continued to defend our local universities’  “world class” status by citing the various overall and subject rankings produced by British firm, Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) over the years.

Idris had said Universiti Malaya (UM) was now in 151st position (up from 167) in the list of 400 top institutions in the world in the 2014 QS World Ranking of prestigious universities.

He said besides the aspect of foreign students enrolment and university rankings, the country’s higher education could be said to be world class based on other factors such as achievement in subjects, whereby 11 public institutions of higher learning were listed among the top 100 universities in the world.

For example, “based on QS Ranking by Subject, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) is in the 28th position in the world for environmental science while Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) is ranked 54th worldwide for agricultural science based on the Best Global Universities Rankings,” he said.

Firstly, assuming that the QS World Ranking Table is a reliable measure of quality, there is absolutely nothing “world class” about UM being ranked 151st in the world.  None of the other 19 local public universities, 36 private universities and 30 university colleges ranked within the top 250 in the world.  Even if Malaysia chooses to define the 151st ranking as being “world class”, one swallow certainly does not maketh a summer.

Secondly, while all ranking methodologies are imperfect, why did Datuk Seri Idris choose to cite only the QS rankings out of several reputable global university rankings tables out there?  In fact, of the handful of rankings tables, QS is perhaps the most criticised for its lack of rigour and consistency in its methodology.

Between 2004 and 2009, QS had produced their university rankings in partnership with The Times Higher Education (THE) Supplement, the leading publication on higher education in the United Kingdom.  However that partnership ended when THE rejected QS and its much criticised methodology, resulting in THE creating its own separate rankings.

Among the biggest critics of the QS rankings is Professor Simon Marginson, a professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne. He described the QS World University Rankings as having "a lot of dark spaces and problems the way they go about it", adding that 40-50 per cent of the ranking was based on reputational surveys.

"They've got a ranking process which they've done very cheaply ... and that's a loss leader for a lot of other business activities," suggesting a conflict of interest between their ranking table and their provision of various consulting services to universities.

Without even taking into consideration of the quality of QS’s work, all other widely cited University Rankings Tables in the world do not rank any Malaysian institution of higher learning anywhere near the top 200.

Not a single Malaysian university made it into the Top 400 list institutions of the THE World University Rankings for 2014 .  The Academic Ranking of World Universities produced by Shanghai JiaoTung University placed UM in the #301-400 category in 2014 .  For the US News “Best Global Universities” listing, UM again was the only Malaysian institution that made it into the Top 500 at #423 .

In the Ranking Web of Universities compiled by Webometrics, UPM was best ranked at 420, followed by Universiti Sains Malaysia (480), Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (552) and UM (646).

Let me emphasize here again that no ranking system is perfect. Such tables do however provide indicative relative quality rankings between global universities.  The question to ask is therefore, why is the Ministry of Eduation only selectively interested in the QS Rankings, and failed to cite any of the other studies?  Is it because all of the other studies rank Malaysian universities very badly?

Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh appears to be behaving like the proverbial “ayam berkokok, riuh sekampung” when he insisted that Malaysia has achieved “world class” higher education standards.  As the Deputy Education Minister, Malaysians would hope that he could be more enlightened and honest in his assessment of our local education standards.

While we are thankful that we are certainly not in the league of many Third World countries, we are far from being able to proclaim ourselves as world class without sniggers from both the academic world and the knowing public.

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