Hold a referendum to let the 50,000 undergraduates and post-graduate students of UM and UKM decide whether to join or boycott the THE university rankings

The Universiti Malaya Students Association (PMUM) has come out in support of Universiti Malaya and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia opting out of the annual Times Higher Education Top 400 World University Rankings.

PMUM president Fahmi Zainol said the two universities deserve praise for their move, pointing out that the institutions have been plagued with problems for being too focussed on rankings.

I can understand the view that quality education is not dependent only on university rankings and that universities should not be too obsessed with them. In fact, it has been asked: “University rankings: reliable or rubbish?”

The Norwegian government has even commissioned a study of the placement of Norwegian universities in global rankings and concluded that university rankings are “useless” as a basis for information if the goal is to improve higher education as they are so based on subjective weightings of factors and on dubious data. This Norwegian report was described as “A Kiss of Death for university rankings” by a Norwegian academician.

There are undoubtedly pros and cons on university rankings.

Have Fahmi thought through the whole subject of university rankings and are his views his personal ones, or the official view of the PMUM Executive Committee, as well as representing that of the UKM Students Council?

Are they the views of the 50,000 undergraduates and post-graduate students in the two universities?

If Fahmi is opposed to UM and UKM taking part in the annual THE World University Rankings, why does he support the two universities taking part in the annual QS World University Rankings and UM’s decision to take part in the THE World University Ranking in 2018 when UM is more ready to compete with other established universities around the world?

It would be a good for hold a referendum to let the 50,000 under-graduates and post-graduate students of UM and UKM decide whether the two university should join or continue to boycott the THE university rankings, and let the proponents of both the pros and cons of the argument to state their case, not only to the university student-and-lecturer population but to the nation at large.

This referendum proposition is a subject which PMUM and the UKM Students Council should seriously consider to take up with the university authorities.

Let us look at the history of UM and UKM with university rankings.

The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) commissioned QS Quacquarelli Symonds, an education consultancy, to collect and compile the data which formed the basis for the THES-QS World University Rankings from 2004 to 2009.

Recall that in the first year of this ranking, UM came in ranked 89 in the world and USM was ranked at 111.

The reason for this high ranking was that QS mistakenly thought that Chinese and Indian Malaysian students in these universities were foreign students leading USM to score 78 out of 100 (ranked 4th overall) and UM to score 68 out of 100 (ranked 6th overall) for the International Student Score.

A similar mistake was made for the Chinese and Indian faculty by QS. QS later came out to confirm this mistake.

Once this data was corrected, UM fell from 89th in 2004 to 169th in 2005. Its international student score dropped from 68 in 2004 to 7 in 2005 and its international faculty score dropped from 29 in 2004 to 12 in 2005. USM dropped out of the top 200 completely.

In the 2006 rankings, UM fell further from 169 to 192 although UKM made an appearance in the top 200 rising from 289 in 2005 to 185 in 2006, overtaking UM.

In 2007, both UM and UKM dropped out of the Top 200 to 246 and 309 respectively. USM and UPM remained outside the top 200 at 307 and 364 respective.

In 2008, none of the Malaysian universities cracked the top 200. In 2009, UM managed to crack the top 200 by coming in at 180.

After the THE-QS World University Rankings 2009, QS and Times Higher Education went their separate ways with QS continuing the old methodology while THE formed a partnership with Thomson Reuters, the data and media giant.

In the QS World University Rankings 2010, UM fell out of the top 200 to 207. Since 2011, UM has been gravitating between 151 (2014-2015) and 167 (2011 and 2013-2014). For now, UM’s position in the top QS World University Rankiings 200 seems to be secure even though the QS rankings may be volatile for universities above 100.

Table 1: THES-QS and QS World University Rankings (2004 to 2014/2015)

Year / Institution UM USM UKM UPM UTM IIUM UiTM
2004 89 111 NA
2005 169 NA 289
2006 192 NA 185
2007 246 307 309 364
2008 230 >200 >200 >200
2009 180 314 291 345 320
THES and QS broke away and started their own respective ranking systems
2010 207 309 263 319 365
2011 167 335 379 358 401-450
2012-2013 156 326 261 360 358 401-450 +601
2013-2014 167 355 269 411-420 355 501-550 +701
2014-2015 151 309 259 376 294 501-550 651-700

Source: QS-THES World University Rankings (2004-2009), QS World University Rankings (2010 to 2014-2015)

The Difference between the QS and THES Rankings

THES broke away from QS in 2010 because it decided to ask Thomson Reuters to provide data for the basis of the THES rankings. One of the reasons was because of the criticism against the heavy weightage of QS academic reputation survey (40% of total rankings). Thomson Reuters went on to compile new data from a Global Institutional Profiles Project (GIPP).

Instead of relying on just 6 measures which is used by QS, THES uses 13 indicators to achieve a greater balance and consistency in their ranking system.

Both QS and the new THES ranking systems have had their share of criticisms.

What is Malaysia’s approach to QS and THES?

After the break-up between the QS and THES rankings, most Malaysian universities seems to have participated in the QS rankings but not the THES rankings.

The number of Malaysian public universities being featured in the QS survey has increased from 5 in 2009 to 7 in 2010.

According to the list of participating institutions provided by Thomson Reuters, only UKM, UPM and UUM participated in this survey of global institutions. However, in the latest 2014-2015 report, THES says that both UKM and UM failed to participate in this survey.

Are the reasons for non-participating in the THES survey valid?

The Malaysian Insider have the following reasons for UM’s decision not to participate in the THES survey:

“UM vice-chancellor Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Amin Jalaludin says the institution did not take part in the THE rankings. ‘There are two reasons why UM chose not to participate in the THE World University Rankings. The first is because UM is still building up its publications and citations in the Web of Science database. UM’s policy on this began only in 2008. It is now only beginning to bear fruit but is not yet sufficiently mature to make an impact. ‘The second reason is related to the amount of funding that UM receives. It is not in a strong enough financial position to compete with other richer, older and better-ranked universities,’ he explains.”

Table 2: Operating and Development Budgets for IPTAs according to the 2014 Budget Estimates

Rank IPTA Operating Development Total
1 USM 587,960,300 28,000,000 615,960,300
2 UM 529,944,700 74,000,000 603,944,700
3 UTM 521,384,700 73,000,000 594,384,700
4 UKM 510,091,700 46,800,000 556,891,700
5 UPM 508,899,300 42,000,000 550,899,300
6 UIAM 490,108,300 14,000,000 504,108,300
7 UMS 300,137,300 37,000,000 337,137,300
8 UMP 203,640,700 92,000,000 295,640,700
9 UTHM 249,381,800 28,000,000 277,381,800
10 UUM 230,817,500 29,800,000 260,617,500
11 UNIMAS 202,895,600 25,500,000 228,395,600
12 UTeM 177,627,700 47,000,000 224,627,700
13 UniMAP 171,948,900 51,500,000 223,448,900
14 UPSI 157,568,200 41,000,000 198,568,200
15 UniSZA 117,967,200 65,000,000 182,967,200
16 USIM 114,460,100 51,150,000 165,610,100

What is even more interesting is UM’s decision to participate in the QS Stars Rating System for which it must pay a few to be audited every year.

Under the QS Stars Rating system, UM received 5 Stars for which it had to pay an initial audit and license fee of US$16,750 and a yearly license fee of US$6850.

If UM is willing to pay for the privilege of being audited, why not participate in the THES rankings which does not require a participation fee?

Even Universiti Malaysia Perlis (UniMAP) participated in the QS Stars rating system for which it was praised by Prime Minister Najib: “Congrats to @PROUniMAP on the 3-star rating by QS Intelligence. Hope so to see more public unis follow suit,” said Najib.

The UKM has also given The Malaysian Insider its reason for not participating in the THE World University Ranking 2014, viz:

“In an immediate response to Baty’s comments, UKM’s Strategic Centre deputy executive director (performance assessment) Associate Professor Dr Masturah Markom told The Malaysian Insider that the university preferred to focus on rankings that were fair to its direction.

“’This ranking (THE) has different indicators and it’s more suitable for universities that have been established far longer. Indicators, such as ‘industry income’, are unfair to us as Malaysia’s (industry income) is not as much as in the United States, for example. We cannot compete with them so it is best if we spend on rankings that are better suited to our direction and focus,” she said, referring to the QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) rankings.’”

Again, this is not a good reason for not participating in the THES rankings since (i) industry income comprises less than 5% of the total score for the THES rankings (ii) Malaysian universities are being pushed to innovate more and to have more public private collaborations which would bring in research income for the researcher and the their university. This is an important tracking mechanism for Malaysian public universities moving forward.


One cannot help but think that Malaysian universities such as UM prefer to participate in the QS Survey over the THES survey because:

  1. QS is a client of UM and moving forward, other public universities as well in the provision of consultancy services, marketing and subscription of the QS Stars rating system and hence would be more favourable towards these institutions in terms of ranking;
  2. Under the QS Ranking, a university may find it easier to ‘game the system’ by increasing scores on certain indicators e.g. faculty / student ratio:
  3. Citation scores under THES make up 30% of the overall score compared to 20% for QS. Since this is an area which is the hardest to ‘game’ the system and where Malaysian academics have performed badly, it is not surprising that some public universities want to avoid ranking systems which give a higher % weighting to citation scores.

Clearly, it would be preferable for public universities in Malaysia to participate in as many rankings as possible so that it has numerous data points to judge its performance.

But at the same time, the universities must have its own internal targets to improve on its own performance which are not subject to the vagaries and ‘gaming’ of the various ranking systems.

  1. #1 by Justice Ipsofacto on Monday, 6 October 2014 - 4:57 pm

    “University ranking is rubbish”

    Heeck I should hv known that!

    So that really means one thing: uitm could actually be better than harvard and oxford combined.

  2. #2 by sotong on Monday, 6 October 2014 - 5:19 pm

    In their present ‘ situation ‘, no news is good news.

    Secrecy and cover up are friends of the powerful and corrupt.

  3. #4 by Bigjoe on Monday, 6 October 2014 - 9:05 pm

    What is worrying is that these so called students “leader”, after having being so heavily invested by the state and UMNO, want their entitlement to bury and deny their problems, when as aspiring future leaders, they should be welcoming challenges because if they were properly educated, one of the most basic things they should have learned is that if they can’t measure the problem, they can’t know the problem and can never fix it.

    Instead, they parrot the wrong of the their forebear, perpetuate the mistakes even add to it, when they will eventually be confronted with it can can never avoid it. In other words, they are not ready for what awaits them in the real world that they can’t avoid..

  4. #5 by boh-liao on Tuesday, 7 October 2014 - 7:45 pm

  5. #6 by waterfrontcoolie on Wednesday, 8 October 2014 - 12:09 am

    Just like the commercial rating agencies, some of these reports may be just as useless but that does not say that our local universities are being rated poorly because of being bias by the rating party. We have not achieve much even in open international competitions where either you can compete or just thrown out. Say for instance, the annual IBM sponsored computer problem solving competition: how many local universities had reached the final round?? Of course, a better comparison will be how competitive are their graduates in the MNCs in the international scenario!! I just wonder if the Gomen do employ more graduates than the industry every year????

    • #7 by cemerlang on Wednesday, 8 October 2014 - 3:39 pm

      At the end of the day, it is the student’s future. The most important thing is he has a job because no point having all the recognitions in the world but no job stability.

You must be logged in to post a comment.