What being a ‘ranked university’ means
(Philstar.com) - June 16, 2016 - 1:35pm

BATANGAS, Philippines (The Filipino Connection) - Annually, academic consulting firms like Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) and Times Higher Education release what they call global rankings of universities. These rankings have been an outcome of the globalization of higher education. Higher education is now a “new sport,” of course with undertones of making these “globally-ranked” reputations bases to help bolster universities’ academic missions and entrepreneurial standing.

Fortunately or unfortunately, these rankings have become a push for universities, especially in the developing world, to try to be in the same terrain as those in richer countries. Not surprisingly, the world’s top universities are not only publicly funded but are from moneyed countries. (The highest-ranked university from the developing world —excluding China— in QS’ 2016 World University Rankings is world no. 124 Universidad de Buenos Aires in crisis-hit Argentina.)

For those universities in developing countries like the Philippines, this annual ranking is a source of frustration. This is because financial investments to push these Philippine universities to the next levels are wanting. Filipino university teachers, as a study by a De La Salle University professor finds, is allergic with research (one major criterion in these rankings). These same teachers’ competencies are also being tested in the global terrain, while these rankings firms wanting “world-class universities” to hire international faculty and recruit international students.  Meanwhile, employer reputation is but targeting a global labor market —and the unrecognizable universities from wherever country will be left behind (that also happens locally among employers always searching for what they call the “Philippines’ Big 4,” by the way).

And to maintain a “manageable” faculty-student ratio, tuition rates are constantly being challenged by a price-sensitive market that wants quality but affordable quality education. The correlation between macroeconomic prosperity and quality-laden higher education investments is strong. Public universities may have taxation but are constrained by a developing country government’s other budget allocations (develop countries’ public universities are lucky to enjoy as much taxpayers’ money). Private universities are but attempting to capture the moneyed students. “Quality” education, from the standpoint of developing countries, also segregates classes and unfortunately excludes the hard-up.

There is also the question of what these rankings do not measure or include as “quality.” A developing country university’s efforts to uplift communities —with visible, measurable outcomes in tow— do not count. Ironically, while developed countries get skilled workers from the developing world, rankings firms rated the universities where these skilled workers originated low. Note that these developing country university products were trained given affordable tuition, so developed countries get a free ride from supposedly training these foreign skilled workers. (So does this development count in criterion such as “employer reputation”?)

Globalization had truly pushed developing country universities like those in the Philippines to the near-brink of their resources. With the K-12 transition already commencing, one can assume Philippine universities’ rankings in the next five years will be affected given universities’ expected financial losses. To be fair, Philippine higher education may have to maintain some regulation especially with the sprouting of schools, colleges and universities that may not be able to keep with the demands of quality higher education but are trying to provide access to university education.

Developing country universities are left with no choice but to “compete” or to “run side-by-side” with the rest of the world’s top universities. Yes, these universities can be proud with national-level quality assurance recognition from educators’ groups, but this “new sport” called global university rankings will obviously see which ones fare better over others. Like how players from our national pastime, basketball, fare with NBA idols.

But these rankings, or academic quality assurance efforts in general, should not be the be-all and end-all of university management and policy. Getting published in rated international scholarly journals (which, quite frankly are not getting read and are too expensive to subscribe) is not the end-goal of university research. A university’s civic role in a Philippine community is but part of a university’s mission, not for the mere sake of quality assurance fetishism. University education is about assuring the people inside this hub of learning how students are molded and formed; how knowledge is generated considering local conditions and that compares with the rest of the world; and how a university positions itself in the socio-political life of a nation. Global rankings are but mere guides to these broader missions of universities.

It pays to be globally ranked, and for universities and their degree programs to aspire for the stars. It helps that universities improve on where they are strong at, but it also helps to be critical of what these rankings firms ask for as indicators of quality.

But it pays more to be extra conscious of what university students should be afterwards, of how professors should be of good quality and of respectable decorum, of how non-academic staff find university service a fulfilling career, and of how a specific university is a stalwart of community and nation building.

The Filipino Connection is a regional partner of Philstar.com

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