by Anisah Shukry
The Malaysian Insider
2 May 2015
Despite Malaysian universities’ continued strong showing in QS Quacquarelli Symonds’s world rankings, the London-based firm has cautioned Malaysia not to solely rely on its results to gauge the performance of the nation’s varsities.
While Putrajaya often cites QS’s rankings as proof Malaysian universities are world class, QS head of research Ben Sowter agreed with Times Higher Education (THE) that Malaysia must refer to multiple sources to get an accurate picture of how local varsities fare compared with the rest of the world.
“Ours is only one of range of publicly available measures. Universities and policy-makers should combine data from multiple sources to form an accurate diagnosis of their strengths and weaknesses,” Rowter told The Malaysian Insider in an email interview.
“We strongly discourage anyone from making important choices on the basis of only one input.”
He said Malaysian universities should also improve on its research if it wished to be conferred world-class status by “objective commentators”.
“From our perspective, Malaysia has universities that are world class in some areas, and insofar as UM (Universiti Malaya) is well placed in our top 200 it could be considered world class… but it rather depends on the definition and how many world-class universities that definition considers there to be.
“Research productivity and impact is currently a recovering weakness for Malaysian universities and one which may need to recover further for objective commentators to confer them with world-class status.”
On Tuesday, The Malaysian Insider reported that two local universities, UM and Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) made it to this year’s QS World University Rankings by subjects, compared with just one last year.
Last September, five Malaysian universities also made the top 400 in the QS World University Rankings 2014 survey.
However, on Thursday, THE revealed that Malaysian universities have once again failed to make the THE’s annual 100 Under 50 2015 rankings – a list of the world’s best universities under the age of 50.
Malaysia in March also failed to make THE’s list of seven fastest-rising young universities and the THE World Reputation Rankings 2015.
Despite this, Second Education Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh has often cited QS’s rankings as proof that Malaysian universities were doing well and even said that local varsities were on a par with those of developed nations, such as Britain, Germany and Australia.
This prompted THE editor Phil Baty to warn Malaysia not to rely only on “flattering” rankings such as QS, saying that other world rankings highlight concerns about the performance of Malaysian universities.
Baty told The Malaysian Insider that Malaysia excelled in QS’s rankings because they employed “very, very weak and simplistic methodology” to assess universities worldwide.
But while Sowter agreed with Baty that just one ranking was not enough, he defended QS’s methodology and said it was inappropriate for anyone to make generalised opinions on other rankings.
“The strength and relevance of a methodology is in the eye of the user. As a factual comparison, the QS ranking exhibits much less wild fluctuation year on year, bases 50% of its methodology on more than 90,000 survey responses (THE bases 33% on slightly more than 10,000) and remains the only international ranking to consider employability.
“QS also relies much less heavily than THE on self-reported data, which reduces the possibility of data manipulation and enables us to rank universities whether they like it or not.”
Sowter said he believed the main reason Malaysian universities did not perform as well in other global rankings was because they primarily evaluated universities based on research output.
“Aside from QS and THE, other global rankings are built almost entirely on research productivity and impact in English and while improving, this is an area where Malaysian institutions have traditionally been weak.”
But he said in the case of THE, it seemed that the key factor for Malaysian institutions’ failure to feature in the rankings was their decision not to participate in it.
“Not participating is not the same as performing poorly and it’s extremely misleading to suggest it is,” said Sowter.
Most of Malaysia’s universities have stopped submitting data to THE to be ranked – even UKM, the sole university to make THE’s Top 100 under 50 in 2012, has snubbed THE’s rankings for at least two years in a row.
UKM told The Malaysian Insider last year that this was because the university preferred to focus on rankings that were fair to its direction.
UKM’s Strategic Centre deputy executive director (performance assessment) Associate Professor Dr Masturah Markom had said the university could not compete in the indicators set by THE’s rankings, so “it is best if we spend on rankings that are better suited to our direction and focus”.
“It is common and perhaps inevitable for universities and governments to primarily promote the rankings which paint them in a positive light… this is not unique to Malaysia,” said Sowter. – May 2, 2015.