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Global university rankings – a form of symbolic violence

They dominate universities by subtly coaxing them to be 'actively complicit' through the manipulation of human emotions – shame, humiliation, timidity and guilt

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In this analysis, I will take the kid gloves off.

Universities and education systems around the world have been dealt a slow death ever since the university and its services ceased to be the exclusive responsibility of the state.

The market economy now runs the show. The global crisis in higher education has been brewing since the mid-1990s, due to the slow abdication of state responsibility. What was traditionally considered a public good is no longer the case.

Global university rankings can be described as a highly incestuous undertaking. Since the emergence of the first rankers in 2003, global university ranking companies and a wide range of other businesses have developed excessively close relationships with each other. They are resistant to outside influence.

It is also highly unusual that, over the decades, there has hardly been any criticism of the global university rankings’ lack of transparency, despite the huge volume of profits raked in annually.

In businesses that generate revenue through the sale of advertising, data and analytics, one would expect tight monitoring and detailed public scrutiny.

Instead, global rankings have led to more non-transparent business undertakings such as consulting and access to events and workshops about university rankings.

This incestuous system is built on a mutual dependency between universities that rely on favourable rankings and rankers who sell services under the pretext of ‘helping’ universities improve their rankings.

Rankers collect research and publication data. Global university rankings use them to calculate the number of citations of an article in ranked journals. They also calculate the number of articles in ranked journals produced by a university. The number of authors who are affiliated with a university is also calculated.

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At the same time, rankers regularly publish hierarchical lists of publishers and journals, classified between Q1 and Q4. Throughout my academic career, I have listened endlessly to department colleagues boasting about their Q1 publications.

Universities also post regular congratulatory messages on their institution websites to ‘highly accomplished’ Q1-Q4-published scholars. Yet, many of these academics remain kangkong (dubious) academics. Their Q1-level research has hardly affected peoples’ lives.

Prominent publishing companies such as Elsevier, Clarivate, Wiley and Springer work closely with databases which rank (index) journals. Examples of journal rankers are Scopus, Web of Science (WoS), ProQuest and International Scientific Indexing (ISI). Scopus is owned by Elsevier and was launched in 2004. WoS and ISI are owned by Clarivate.

Scholars and universities scramble to produce data for annual rankings by subscribing to these journals. Subscription is exorbitant.

Academics are also constantly nagged by their departments and university vice-chancellors to publish in them. Even though an academic must pay to get published, they are not paid to participate in the “peer review” process.

Reviewing articles is part of an academic’s job. It is very time-consuming and intellectually demanding. Yet, we are expected to do it for free.

Global university rankings are a form of symbolic violence. They dominate universities by subtly coaxing the latter to be ‘actively complicit’. They do this through the manipulation of human emotions – shame, humiliation, timidity and guilt. This is a form of violent assault on human nature.

Furthermore, symbolic violence entails the idealisation of the oppressor, self-denigration and blind acceptance. Therefore, in this ‘ranking business’, universities around the world actively comply with and willingly accept the domination of four ranking companies.

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Global university rankings play on educators’ emotions. To entice universities to participate, they psychologically seduce them (and other higher education stakeholders) through the media.

Global rankings manipulate state decision-makers by dangling the ‘prestige and affluence’ carrot. The claim is that if one participates in these rankings, it is highly probable that one will gain more prestige and international reputation, and grow richer in the process.

Since 2003 we have been drowning in critical narratives against rankings. The problem is not that we have no evidence or are ignorant of the dangers of global university rankings. The problem is that our criticism is overshadowed by the logic of efficiency and economic value, pushed by global rankings.

Furthermore, publishing such criticism of rankings is the greatest irony of all.

It has now become a global business, feeding directly into the very unethical practice we criticise. Critiques of rankings are published widely in indexed journals, rankers’ newsletters and book series published by ranking companies.

The critical debates debunking global university rankings are shrewdly platformed by rankers themselves, to give the impression that they encourage freedom of expression and genuine scholarly discourse. They want us to think they are sincere about transforming the system.

Meanwhile, global university rankings continue to extract our finances because universities feel they have no choice but to continue participating in the system.

Malaysian universities must embark on alternatives. We must deploy a dual strategy.

First, while criticising global university rankings, we must have the political will to reform our universities and overhaul the higher education system. Criticising the exploitation of global university rankings while we continue to oppress and exploit at home is equally unjust.

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Second, begin strategising and clearly identifying alternatives. Start a national debate, organise a series of roundtable discussions, and keep the media narrative transparent, lively and forward-looking. Invite all who are knowledgeable about the rankings, both local and foreign, to the drawing table. Start organising strategic plans, mapping university and higher education transformation in various stages.

Again, unless we reform our universities, we have no foot to stand on. As it is, the system suppresses academic freedom and critical thinking. It constricts student activism. It discourages open discourse on campus on diverse topics.

Tight political interference has resulted in the de-platforming of many public intellectuals over the decades.

Our system condones political appointments to top university managements. It is not serious about eradicating academic dishonesty. Our system props up mediocre academics. Many of these fail to articulate that universities in the developed North are slowly losing their identities as bastions of freedom of speech or rigorous intellectual activity.

For example, while the genocide in Gaza goes on, many universities in the US and Europe are silencing their scholars. Scholars are also self-censoring for fear of reprisals if they speak up in support of the Palestinians. Many have been fired for speaking or writing against Israel and US foreign policy.

This reveals the hypocrisy of the Western education ethos.

The global university rankings are equally reprehensible. It is time for Malaysian universities to be introspective and make a dignified exit. – Free Malaysia Today

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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