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Radicalising the debate on global university rankings

These annual rankings are a predominantly Euro-American centric process and hegemonic, as any university that wants to participate must pay a lot of money

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It is time to radicalise the debate on global university rankings.

We must problematise the practice within mainstream challenges in our universities. This includes academic dishonesty, mediocrity in teaching and supervision, the reverence for quantity over quality, a high volume of irrelevant research output and unemployable graduates.

It is time for the government and academics to both create more awareness, and embark on concrete changes. The rankings game is extremely unethical.

It is time to do something about it. Merely talking about why it is a bad thing is not enough. In this piece, I discuss global university rankings from a decolonial perspective, which might help to radicalise our thinking and prompt bold changes.

A decolonial perspective of global university rankings is a conceptual addition to the existing critiques of these rankings. Criticism of such rankings has been around for almost two decades, ever since the ranking game began in 2003. Yet, the momentum to rank has become even more giddy despite the growing body of criticism against it.

To generate more anger and bold resolve to reduce the global university rankings’ exploitative influence, this re-conceptualisation is necessary.

My hope is that the “Madani” (civil and compassionate) government will embark on systematic strategies to arrest this hideous worshipping of global university rankings as soon as possible. A developing nation like Malaysia does not have the luxury of time. Endlessly calling out these rankings for their lack of logic or ethics is useful, but not enough. We need alternatives, or at least, must ask ourselves if there are alternatives.

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These global rankings are a colonial, hegemonic and intrusive project. Ranking is a predominantly Euro-American centric process. It is hegemonic because it dominates financially. Any university anywhere in the world that wants to participate in this annual ranking exercise must pay a lot of money. It is expensive to be ranked.

The ranking process is an asymmetrical (uneven) system of power competition. It creates “centres” (controlled by ranking companies, mainly in the West) and “peripheries” (the rest of the world).

Rankers are hegemonic because they are geographically centred in “big power” territories and exert influence over vast expanses of other territories.

The most influential rankers are based in the US, the UK and China. Apart from China, most of the familiar ranking companies emerged in countries which were former colonial powers.

Furthermore, the dynamics of relations in a hegemonic relationship are as follows: the hegemon convinces smaller entities that the hegemon’s interests should be the interests of all. This characterises the global university rankings.

The ranking project is extractive financially. Universities, including those in poor countries, which happen to be most of the Global South nations, are told that if they pay, they have a chance to increase their academic reputation.

Year after year, many universities spiral down the ranking ladder, yet still pay exorbitant sums annually, hoping to regain their reputation.

The ranking process is biased. It normalises ranking criteria, creating universal standards. The “universalisation of excellence” is based on Western criteria. This means that the data collected favours the English language. The heavy emphasis on anglophone journals and bibliometric systems creates an unfair advantage for English-speaking authors and universities in English-speaking countries.

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There is also a strong science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) bias. The privileging of Stem subjects diminishes the importance of the humanities and social sciences. This has led to a recent number of silly comments by politicians for universities to stop teaching “useless subjects” like philosophy and art.

The fault lies in part with the global university rankings. They have characterised non-Stem subjects as parochial, inefficient and stifling international reputation. Gullible politicians are so easily influenced by these rankings.

It is clear that global university rankings operate to marginalise diversity. These rankings have a preference to ‘subdue’ diversity, so it is easier to dominate and control the business of profit-making. This is so typical of colonialism in the past – or any neo-colonial project today.

The practice of homogenising regulations across cultures and geographies makes it easy to control and exploit. In the process, regional, national, political, cultural and economic differences among countries are minimised, even ‘cancelled’.

Everyone under the global rankings umbrella has hardly any choice but to follow standard operating procedures set by a handful of for-profit organisations. This sidetracks many countries from focusing on nation-specific problems, which may entail culture-specific standard operating procedures.

Who or what are these ranking organisations? In the literature, there are four companies which are most referred to. These are Quacquarelli Symonds, US News and World Report, Times Higher Education, and the Shanghai Ranking Consultancy. These are the most influential organisations behind the global university ranking. All are for-profit private corporations. They are the most powerful leaders of the “capitalist knowledge economy”.

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These companies align themselves with major publishing businesses, such as Elsevier, Clarivate, Wiley and Springer. Both conglomerates extract data, time and other resources from thousands of universities worldwide.

The ranking customers or “clients” are our universities, ministries and various associated government agencies. Clients dutifully provide data to these greedy capitalists, annually. This in turn creates a web of demand for analytics and data consultancy products and services.

The entire process is exploitative, time-consuming and stressful. Universities have been conditioned to participate in this expensive, hierarchical “league of competitions”. They make rankers very rich.

In poorer nations with limited budgets, data collection is extremely financially exploitative. Competitors are tricked into thinking they can win, but in the process national budgets are strained, the quality of higher education dwindles and national resources are drained.

Global university rankings are very intrusive. In a developing country like Malaysia, the system influences social and political policy. They shape academic governance. For example, ministries feel pressured to standardise curriculums and to push academics to “publish or perish”.

On top of this pressure, the university rankings business model distracts universities from their core academic focus. They are distracted from teaching and engaging in problem-specific research agendas. Lecturers devote less mental energy to quality supervision. They are more concerned with how many supervisees they can accumulate, and graduating them on time, if not faster. – 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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