Smirk faces and snide remarks?

by Uwe Dippel
Senior Lecturer
Department of Systems and Networking
College of Information Technology
Universiti Tenaga Nasional

My comment on the University Rankings

That is what I tend to see and hear around me in these days, after the annual world rankings of universities have been published.

As a reminder: the rankings published by QS saw UM rising to place 167, while all other Malaysian universities went down by around 20-30 each, with UTM falling out of the top 400 completely.

Then, on October 7th, another ranking provider, Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) saw
all Malaysian universities falling straight out of the top 400, including Universiti Malaya.

No wonder about those faces looking at me and those remarks. So, have we university lecturers just been in a state of tidur, fast asleep, and lazying about during the last years? I can’t blame the public for their initial feelings. Though the matter is not quite that straightforward and simple.

Allow me to add some insight into this topic.

For this purpose we have to go back some years into the past. To eventually everyone’s astonishment, probably Universiti Malaya herself, UM happened to be ranked 89 globally in 2004.

This was the first year that Times Higher Education Supplement published rankings based on results from work outsourced to QS. The fact remains, that it was kind of an unexpected success, and when one achieves such a type of unexpected laurels, one ought to be cautious, very cautious. When such an unexpected – and yet welcome – recognition rolls in, one needs to ask if one can uphold the status in future and under close scrutiny.

We in the academic community were quite adamant then, that Universiti Malaya was a good university, though not that good. There were three problems with this ranking as offered by QS; firstly there
was an objective mistake in the calculation, pointed out to QS by me (though I don’t know if I was the first one) and subsequently acknowledged by QS.

Secondly, there was a miscommunication between UM and QS. Additionally, some methodological problems were prevailing in the setup of the exercise. On the other hand one has to accept that it was a first-time exercise for QS and THES, and future corrections and improvements were offered.

As an after-effect of this unexpected result, suddenly half of the Malaysian academic community as well as the Ministry of (Higher) Education became busy with the topic of rankings. Nobody wanted to listen to the cautious remarks that 89 was just not realistic. On the contrary, it was thought that some extra, concerted effort would catapult UM even higher. This didn’t actually work out, for neither of the Malaysian universities.

And here is why: The principal reason for this non-achievement is not found inside Malaysia and her universities, rather outside. The authorities failed to properly analyse the competition closely. Therefore they failed to understand that the field of competitors was largely incomplete in 2004 and still is. The playing field was all but static during the last few years.

As someone with quite a number of contacts with European universities, I can vouch for the fact that some years ago almost none of these universities was even thinking in terms of ranking, while as of 2011 it still is a minority.

Germany for example has meanwhile identified 9 universities out of her more than 200 to join the race for excellence. Likewise in the other countries of continental Europe, most universities are still focused on societal, local or subject-related objectives. In a nutshell, the large amount of universities had/has yet to actively enter the race.

The consequences are glaring: When a specific institution was ranked highly with little effort, with many more competitors joining and many of these competitors starting to become really serious, this
institution will fall in the ranking despite of objective improvements.

And this is what we are currently experiencing here in Malaysia. There are serious efforts ongoing in the universities as well as in the Ministry of Higher Education to increase the standing of the Malaysian universities; with respect to publication, academic visibility, peer-to-peer perception, etc. Without these efforts, the Malaysian universities would surely have fallen even further behind.

In my humble opinion, it was and is a mistake to have many Malaysian universities trying to enter this (rat-)race; for most the mere thought about it is a waste of time.

Looking at the larger part of the Malaysian universities, they are significantly young, at the building-up phase and trying to establish themselves. Making it into the globally recognised set of universities requires a long-lasting effort, most of the highly ranked universities have a long tradition, and maybe more than one generation of dedicated academicians’ work, based on generous and long-term funding.

For the average Malaysian university there are many more pressing things to look into than global ranking. It is remarkable that seemingly only one university, USM, perceived and publicly stated that it had other priorities.

There is a good news in this and a bad news. The good one is, that when we manage to keep our rankings, it is a sign of actual improvement.

When our rankings are increasing, the improvements are significant. The bad news is that we are actually just not there yet.

We might not have reached the bottom of the valley. There are obviously many universities that have yet to enter the competition, and others in the range of our rankings who have yet to seriously
start competing, while we already have.

That puts us in the Malaysian universities in a not too favourable position: as much as we struggle
in these days, and objectively improve along the way, we can not yet expect to reap the results in an ever growing field of also competent competitors.

We have to work harder and we might as well need to ponder on our current strategies to further improve the standing of the Malaysian universities. But that’s a different topic altogether.

  1. #1 by a g on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 6:58 pm

    Frankly, I had a hard time trying to figure out what he/she was trying to tell us. But that’s not his/her fault. It’s my fault–I don’t understand complicated language.

    Someone please clarify for me! Dipple seemed to be telling us that our universities–even during their ‘heyday’ when they were highly ranked–should not have been ranked that high by QS or THES in the first place, and UM was ranked 89th only by mistake !??

    So all that glitters isn’t gold after all ?

    Sadly, one message that I did manage to sense from this piece was that our people in the academia, if Dippel represented it accurately, are either clueless or helpless as to how to put our universities on those slippery charts !

  2. #2 by boh-liao on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 7:18 pm

    Ya lor, in 2004 UM was ranked 89 by mistake (at dat time, nonMalay students in UM were tot 2 b international students, UM got buta points mah) n d VC then had an orgy of celebration thinking dat he WAS d 1 who led UM 2 glory; of cos, it’s malu history now

    Uwe is honest in dat all our local public Us really hv no business 2 b ranked
    There r still many good established Us NOT in d ranking race, n when they decide 2 join in d race, our local public Us WILL SINK further n lose more face lah, true 1, no bluff 1

  3. #3 by Godfather on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 7:40 pm

    All I could figure out through his long-winded German English was (a) we should never have been ranked that high to begin with and (b) we are still not ready.

  4. #4 by monsterball on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 8:00 pm

    The eagles have landed to teach Malaysians?
    I hope only one eagle.
    Best lecturers are still from India and England.
    Govt employ cheap foreigners…spend millions tax payers money with no second thought.
    In education…it must always stay the worst.
    It’s defence…most important…spend by the billions to fool Malaysians.

  5. #5 by Sallang on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 9:11 pm

    If we were to rank our own universities, which ones will be at the top of the pyramid?

  6. #6 by a g on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 10:44 pm

    Count me out, Sallang !

    Not interested in picking a jaguh kampung.

    Thanks anyway !

  7. #7 by Jeffrey on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 10:51 pm

    As far as I am concerned Uwe Dippel has given every reason why MU & Malaysian Universities are are at bottom of ranking except the obvious one (like an Elephant in the room that he does not acknowledge) – that our universities are geared not towards competition with other universities but priorotise socio-economic reengineering along ethnic/NEP lines to preserve the communal ruling party in power…..

  8. #8 by raven77 on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 11:17 pm

    Our Universities should first ensure that they are financially solvent and accountable…then worry about rankings…

    Many of our Universities are literally living on tax payers money while in the US Universities are led by endowment ….

    If tomorrow our economy dips again, all these fellows in Universities will keep wanting their pay ….but with little or no thought to how income is derived…..or where their pay is coming from

    How many of our Universities can actually attract full paying private or foreign students????….

  9. #9 by sheriff singh on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - 11:26 pm

    If our universities fall further, they might be ranked under the “High School” category.

    These days if you want a degree, you can get one from our many private universities who will sign you on, take your money and give you a piece of paper.

    Its a business. Monkey business.

  10. #10 by trublumsian on Wednesday, 12 October 2011 - 3:33 am

    jibby: my underlings, what’s happening here with the THE?
    minion 1: master that’s because we didn’t allocate $ for that.
    jibby: you mean we didn’t allocate $ for improving our schools’ performance? why would we wanna do that? just pay THE.
    minion 2: master, the THE is not in our grease list.
    moomoo: well, get them on the list. get me the head of THE on the phone. and cut a check.
    minion 1: but master the THE is stupid, they can’t be bought.
    moomoo: what? they don’t like money? they have no integrity.
    hishhish: i hv an idea. let’s manufacture researches. they want papers, we give them papers. shxx loads of them. i’ll get our utusan printing press guys on the line. just grab a couple articles online from caltech, harvard, and stanford , change the first and last words, and voila.
    jibby: good job hishhish, you’re one more step closer to be my successor.
    moomoo: wait?? what?

  11. #11 by trublumsian on Wednesday, 12 October 2011 - 3:48 am

    rumor has it. first umno wanted to raise the country’s literacy and graduation rates, so they scrapped the equivalent of the O and A levels, lowered the bar and came up with SPM, STPM, and sic metriculation. then they leaked answers to these exams in the rural and religious schools so these kids will shine. then reality reared its head when these graduates filled the streets w/ no jobs, umno created jobs out of zero needs so these graduates don’t sit on their behinds n threaten to vote opposition. when the biggest-ever civil workforce in the world by ratio griped about the pool of money being spread too thin among the biggest-ever civil work force and the money don’t buy as much these days, umno gave them more money and doled out lollipops.

  12. #12 by trublumsian on Wednesday, 12 October 2011 - 3:55 am

    this article by Uwe Dippel Senior Lecturer would fail English Writing 101 in the school my brother went to, which only ranked no. 246 on the THE.

  13. #13 by cemerlang on Wednesday, 12 October 2011 - 7:11 am

    Ubah. Change. Transform. Gone are the golden days of Malaya University. Universiti Malaya is like any university; be it Universiti Sains Malaysia, University of Sarawak, University of Selangor, Open University or all the universities found in Malaysia. Read the Prime Minister’s blog and find out the government’s agenda for the country. It is not whether you are the bookworm type or the sportsworm type. It is how you fit into the government’s scheme whether you are from the private or public sector. To me if you can think and you can work, you are a good worker. No point if you cannot think straight and all your work is in a mess even though you are from a top notch university. How to produce good results ? If the students have given their best, then it is your turn to give your best as a lecturer. Pandai pandailah when it comes to giving points and credits. Don’t be too rigid. At the end of the day, it is not about you. It is about the nation and power. Yes, you can argue about quality. But in the end, it is still about our beloved nation and how the world sees her in the spotlight. Politics.

  14. #14 by boh-liao on Wednesday, 12 October 2011 - 9:31 am

    Something is WRONG with THE, How can our public Us b so bad, no way lah

    1M’sia is a nation full of geniuses, cos every year we produce thousands of all As students at all levels of gov exams, enuf 2 fill our public Us’ yearly intakes with all As freshmen

    Where in d world do we find Us hving all As students as freshmen?

    Y is our MOHE boss so humble: Our public Us r not ready 2 b ranked under d THE system

  15. #15 by megaman on Wednesday, 12 October 2011 - 10:11 am

    Allow me to try to summarize what Senior Lecturer Uwe Dippel , University Tenaga Nasional tried to state in his comments:

    1. The ranking methods are not perfect and are prone to mistakes.

    2. Many good universities do not participate in the ranking exercise. This doesn’t mean that they are less prestigious or worse compared to universities listed in the rankings.
    It just means that there higher priorities and objectives that these universities are participating in.

    3. Malaysian universities are not ready to participate in the rankings. Many are just too young and still trying to establish their own footings. Participating in the ranking race is a folly.

    4. Previous good rankings for UM and other local universities are due to lesser competitions. Recent drops in rankings doesn’t mean that the local universities have dropped in quality but simply they are just facing tougher competition although having made significant improvements.

    My replies to his comments:

    Your views are definitely valid and justifiable.


    1. Globalization is a REAL FACT TODAY. Get used to it. No point being a jaguh kampung or a local champion.
    Fight with the best and beat the rest ! Get it ?

    2. The public needs a clear and objective yardstick to measure the performance and capabilities of the local universities. If the QS and THES rankings are not reliable, what are the alternatives ? If there are none, then there is no choice but to participate and invest SERIOUS EFFORT.

    PERFORMANCE & RESULTS COUNTS ! Sounds familiar ?
    Pencapaian diUtamakan, Rakyat diDahulukan …

    3. If we failed to compete with the global world, then admit it rather than come up with excuses and justifications.
    Admit our failings and identify what we’ve done wrong so that we can improve further.

    I was educated in one of the universities listed in the ranking and I can tell you WHY it was there and will continue to be listed despite the tough competitions.

    WE worked our asses off for my alma mater to get listed.
    ALL of US, undergrads, lecturers, professors & administrators. No exception.

  16. #16 by digard on Wednesday, 12 October 2011 - 10:21 am

    You’re from Uniten. Isn’t that the university that aspire top 100 in 2015 and top 50 in 2020? – Good luck to you, mate!

  17. #17 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 12 October 2011 - 10:24 am

    ///we produce thousands of all As students at all levels of gov exams, enuf 2 fill our public Us’ yearly intakes with all As freshmen///

    And we hear of parents complaining to Colleges conducting the International Baccalaureate (IB) course, a recognized leader in the field of international education- why their children with straight As from our system cannot even pass the IB exams in spite of money spent! No prize for guess to the right answer why this is so.

  18. #18 by cemerlang on Wednesday, 12 October 2011 - 1:45 pm

    A lot of people in Philippines are degree holders. But they have to go elsewhere to work. They do not work like degree holders. They would do any kind of work just for the money. Just like if everyone is a 4 flat, then who is the 4 flatest among them all ? 1 has to be the best among the best.

  19. #19 by dagen on Thursday, 13 October 2011 - 5:57 pm

    We are no good. The author said. But we are not at the bottom. So that is a good thing. And because we somehow managed status quo, we ought to be happy because that in itself indicates improvement.


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