Universities need to be continuously gauged to see how they fare against other varsities, and rankings are a method of doing so.
GIVE universities the necessary tools so that they can win the war. Strong words perhaps but Universiti Malaya (UM) vice-chancellor Prof Tan Sri Dr Ghauth Jasmon argues that the Government must give the university the funding required to carry out the high impact research to compete at the top.
“High impact research will generate the citations for us. It is just like going to war.
“The Government must give us the tools to fight in order to win. We cannot fight with bare hands,” he explains.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak viewing a model of the MTDC and UiTM technopreneur centre. Looking on are Mohamed Khaled (right) and Prof Sahol Hamid (fourth from right). — File photo
Examples of high impact research include HIV/AIDS, oral cancer, plant genomics and photonics.
Prof Ghauth explains that UM remains committed to enhancing its standing as an internationally-renowned institution of higher education by competing in recognised world university rankings.
“We have set ourselves the target of being within the top 100 universities in the world by 2015 and reaching the top 50 by the year 2020, in line with the vision set out in the National Higher Education Action Plan 2007 – 2010,” he says.
Under the QS World University Rankings, UM moved up 40 places to 167 this year compared to 207 in 2010.
Another sweetener for UM was breaking into the top 500 in the Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s 2011 Academic Ranking of World Universities for the first time.
Prof Ghauth said earlier that UM would continue to participate in world ranking exercises as it needed to benchmark itself against the best.
“But now that we’ve been pushing, the research output has clearly improved and our ISI (Institute for Scientific Information) publications and citations have shot up, which is an indicator of how we’re doing. We have to change in order to go forward as we can’t compete if we stick to the old way of doing things,” he shared.
The spotlight is back on Malaysian institutions this week with the release of the QS World University Rankings 2011.
Other than UM which is the only Malaysian institution that made it to the top 200 of the QS league table; and the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) and Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) which made an appearance for the first time, the other four research universities did not do as well and had slid down the rankings.
It has been argued that rankings seem to be an inevitable aspect of today’s higher education scene in most parts of the world.
Like them or not, they cannot be ignored as rankings provide a useful basis for comparison of institutions and an insight into their strengths and weaknesses.
But what is deterring Malaysia’s institutions from doing well in global league tables such as the QS World University Rankings, Times Higher Education World University Rankings or the Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities?
Giving an overview on how Malaysian institutions have performed this year, QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) Ltd Intelligence Unit head Ben Sowter says as a cohort they have not performed as well as they did last year with employer reputation and citations per faculty being the main driver for that change.
“Obviously UM is an exception and beyond that, UKM has held the closest to its previous position with strong progress in international faculty and international students.
“At a recent UNESCO forum in Paris, it was stated that of the approximately 20,000 institutions in the world, Malaysia has six institutions in the top 600 and they are among the world’s top 3%. Malaysian institutions continue to perform better in the QS rankings than many other international universities,” he shares with StarEducate.
“We are aware that universities in different parts of the world have different priorities and have carried out many programmes that are important to society that we are unable to measure, but Malaysian institutions continue to struggle in the publication of highly-cited papers.
“Whilst this may not be seen as a priority internally, it is a widely-used basis for international comparison,” he says.
Sowter explains that QS conducts and compiles the World University Rankings, which is an annual league table of the top universities in the world. It is based on data gathered and measured in academic peer review, employer reputation review, international faculty ratio, international student ratio, student faculty ratio, and citations per faculty.
Citations or the lack thereof, appears to be what is holding Malaysian institutions back — this is where the works of researchers are indexed by the ISI-indexed journals. The database allows a researcher to identify which articles have been cited most frequently, and who has cited them.
UM statistics now show that there were 1,300 papers published in 2009, followed by 1,800 last year with the university hoping to pass the 2,000 mark — a psychological barrier — this year.
Sowter explains that the intricacies of research strategy are complex and individual to the university in question.
“While the desired outcome is to have more papers in high-impact journals, the journey to get there is not as straightforward and may not be inexpensive.
“Author education and incentive schemes may be a simple starting point but in most cases an institution with finite resources will need to build a long term research strategy that builds on their unique strengths and creates a clarity of purpose in those key areas,” he adds.
Sowter adds that implementing reforms in research strategy will require a lot of detailed analysis. It also requires a research planning and strategy team together with a consistent leadership to see through the implementation.
As for the employer reputation component that is also pulling Malaysian institutions down, Sowter explains that this takes into consideration the important component of employability. The majority of undergraduate students leave university in search of employment after their first degree, making the reputation of their university among employers a crucial consideration.
Under the QS World University Rankings, citations are evaluated to take into account the size of an institution, and are the best understood and most widely accepted measure of research strength.
Often calculated on a “per paper” basis, the QS World University Rankings has adopted a “per faculty member” approach since its inception in 2004. The citations per faculty score contributes 20% to the overall rankings score.
For the calculation of this indicator, QS gathers the information from the total citation count for the last five years.
Sowter explains that there are three major sources of publication and citation data worldwide, these are the Web of Science from Thomson Reuters; Scopus from Elsevier and Google Scholar. QS uses Scopusmainly due to its broader journal coverage.
Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin congratulated UM on its improvement, saying that it was a reflection of the hard work put in by the university staff.
“I am also happy that two more of our institutions, IIUM and UiTM have made it to the QS World University Rankings,” he says.
However, he says rankings are not the ministry’s main objective as it is important to ensure universities contribute to the development process of the country.
“We should not be addicted to rankings but use it as a guide on where we are,” he says.
On a positive side, IIUM and UiTM have been included in the QS rankings at 451-500 and 601+ respectively for the first time this year.
Newly-appointed IIUM rector Prof Datuk Dr Zaleha Kamaruddin commended her predecessor Prof Datuk Dr Syed Arabi Idid and all staff members for their efforts in ensuring the institution’s inclusion in the league table.
“Our graduate employability has recorded a gradual increase over the years with 75% in 2010 and in ensuring quality of teaching and learning, 70% of IIUM’s faculty members have obtained PhDs,” she says.
UiTM vice-chancellor Prof Datuk Dr Sahol Hamid Abu Bakar believes the university has been recognised due to its firm commitment to quality.
“We are working with institutions such as Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and McGill University (in Canada) on research as well as professor exchange programmes.
As an example, Prof Sahol Hamid says UiTM is working on a joint partnership with the Higher Education Ministry and MIT to form the Malaysian Institute for Supply Chain Innovation in Shah Alam.
UKM is ranked 279 this year compared to 263 in 2010; USM at 335 (309), UPM 358 (319) and UTM at between 401 and 450 (365).
UPM vice-chancellor Datuk Dr Radin Umar Radin Sohadi says the university takes notes of the rankings in terms of improvements.
“UPM will focus on fundamentals and will do what is right for the university and the country,” he says.
It is better, he opines, to focus on the Malaysian Research Asessment Instrument (MyRA) which focuses on the fundamentals of a university — research and development (R&D), R&D commercialisiation and the number of those with PhD among its staff members, among others.
Despite a drop in overall ranking, UTM vice-chancellor Prof Datuk Dr Zaini Ujang views the ranking exercise as an indicator for it to continuously improve its performance in other fields such as natural sciences, biological sciences and humanities.
“It is worth noting that UTM’s focus in non-engineering fields is relatively new, and this has in a way affected its overall ranking which takes into consideration performance in all disciplines,” he explains.
Nevertheless, efforts by the university have been in place with Prof Zaini aggresively pursuing a balanced and holistic strategy to improve limitations in other areas.
He notes that UTM’s aims are not to duplicate what others have done, but to focus on niche areas which have high impact and differentiated offering, contributing to national interest such as in areas of halal science, Islamic jurisprudence, and innovation and technology policy.
UKM vice-chancellor Prof Tan Sri Dr Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hasan Shahabudin says it is normal for an institution to be up one year and down the next.
“We are consistently in the top 300. What is more important is what we are doing now to transform UKM,” she adds.