One of the world’s leading publishers of higher education rankings has been forced to defend its latest compilation – a ranking of Asia Pacific universities – after a prestigious Malaysian university was omitted.
Universiti Malaya (UM) was ranked 59th in the Times Higher Education (THE) 2017 Asia University Ranking published in March of this year. However, MU failed to get a mention in last week’s THE 2017 Asia Pacific University Ranking.
It was an especially glaring omission considering that UM is Malaysia’s oldest and, in the minds of many, most esteemed Malaysian university. Our own story on THE’s 2017 Asia Pacific University Ranking generated more than a few inquiries on UM’s absence, while a number of Reddit groups saw pointed comments from Malaysians indignant at the omission.
When AEC News Today reached out to THE for comment, communications director Laura Barnes explained that UM had not been included in the database for the 2016-2017 World University Ranking, published last September, from which data for the 2017 Asia Pacific Rankings was drawn.
“Universiti Malaya was invited to take part in the data collection process at a later date, enabling it to join our Asia University Ranking 2017,” said Barnes.
Link Bait? Old Data Used For New List
THE’s reliance on outdated information in formulating its Asia Pacific ranking calls the utility of the list into question. As stated in their own rationale for compiling an Asia Pacific ranking, the region’s higher education sector is the world’s most dynamic. A ranking based on old data is unlikely to reflect the current situation in a region changing so rapidly.
Asean’s universities are indeed ranked very differently in the THE 2017 Asia Pacific University Ranking than in the THE 2017 Asia University Ranking, which is based on newer data. For instance, while Mahidol University is ranked third in Asean on the former, UM takes its spot in the latter.
More significantly, the composition of Asean’s top ten universities changes significantly. According to the THE 2017 Asia university ranking’s newer data, the majority of Asean’s top 10 universities are Malaysian institutions. But based on the 2017 Asia Pacific university ranking’s older data, most of the top 10 universities in Asean are in Thailand.
Additionally, that a prestigious institution such as UM was not invited to submit data for THE’s rankings until this year suggests major flaws in how the organization chooses which universities to collect data from.
Any discussion on how to improve this system is impossible, as THE is far from transparent about it. While THE lists reasons why some universities are excluded from the ranking, none of them seem to explain UM’s absence from earlier rankings, implying that there’s more to the university selection process than the organisation lets on.
All university rankings need to be taken with a grain of salt. The criteria used in rankings reflect their publisher’s subjective opinions on what makes a good university, and the data points used are imperfect indicators of what they are intended to measure.
But despite their flawed nature, university rankings still carry a lot of weight. Students use them to decide where to pursue degrees. Employers use them to evaluate job applicants. Investors use them to judge the quality of a country’s workforce. Governments use them to decide where to allocate funding.
The importance of university rankings means that THE can’t afford to make mistakes, such as publishing a list based on outdated information or overlooking a well-known university. Their rankings are tools for decision making, not simply drivers for advertising revenue, and their methodology needs to reflect that.
Feature photo John Walker
- UM fails to make the Asia-Pacific list due to technicalities (The Sun Daily)
- Five Malaysian universities in top 200 Asia Pacific list (Free Malaysia Today)
- Are we obsessed with university rankings? (World Bank)
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