Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Form over substance in higher education and university rankings

Death knell for higher education


There is a growing obsession with form over substance and nowhere is this more evident than in the unhealthy interest taken with university rankings.

THIS month marks the 22nd year I have worked as an academic.

In that time, I have seen many changes in the university. There have been, of course, some improvements since those early days.

For one thing, technology has transformed things for the better.  Let’s take a trip down memory lane.

The very first publication I wrote went through this rather painful process.

First, I had to go to the library and find the relevant cases and journal articles. Then having taken copious notes, I went back to my office where I proceeded to write out my thoughts with an ancient device known as a pen.

Having completed this task, I would send my scratching to a lovely lady in the general office downstairs whose job title was “steno”.

She would type out what I wrote, give it back to me to check and then I would return it to her with any corrections. Finally, it would be placed into a pocket made of paper known as a stamped envelope and posted to the publisher.

Now, all cases and statutes including many journals are online. I type my work myself (with the computer checking my spelling and grammar) and when I am done I e-mail the stuff to the publisher.

All in the comfort of my office where I can play Flight of the Hamsters in between constructing sentences filled with gems of wisdom.

I will be the first to admit that I am quite old-fashioned in many ways, but I can categorically say that I don’t miss the days before the Internet and Word.

Progress, unfortunately, is not always positive. And it saddens me to say that over these last two decades I have seen changes that in my opinion ring the death knell for higher education.

In my opinion, the key problem is that those who decide the direction of our universities have lost track of the values that have to underpin these institutions in order for them to play a meaningful role in society.

There is a growing obsession with form over substance and nowhere is this more evident than in the unhealthy interest taken with university rankings.

Politicians harp on about it, so the Government makes it a priority. Because the Government wants higher rankings, the vice-chancellors start ranting about it too.

Rankings have become the raison d’etre for universities.

The quick fix then becomes the holy grail, hence universities look to the ranking criteria and they focus their efforts on doing all they can to meet those criteria.

This blinkered modus operandi then leads to some seriously contorted developments which ignore the principles that are necessary for the proper foundations of truly good universities.

Academic autonomy is one of those principles.

A university is a complex organisation. It is unlike a factory where there is by and large one goal and usually one method with which to achieve the said goal with the best quality and efficiency.

Even in one faculty, there are many variations. Take, for example, the Faculty of Arts – you have departments as diverse as English and Geography; Urban Planning and Gender Studies; International Studies and Indian Studies; the list goes on.

You can’t possibly be laying down a single criterion for quality for such a diverse group. But that is what happened.

Nowadays, if you want to prove your quality, the only way you can do it, which is embraced by universities, is if you publish in the journals recognised by the ranking organisations.

It doesn’t matter if you are an English professor who publishes well-received novels, or if you are a Gender Studies lecturer who uses your knowledge for women’s activism.

What about the fine arts? Shouldn’t the creation of new ideas in dance and theatre take precedence over an article in some obscure (but acknowledged by the rankers) journal which only a handful of people will read?

Increasingly, the thinking of universities is it is our way or the highway.

Such a top down approach cannot work because each academic unit in a university has its own expertise and its own value system.

This has to be respected because they themselves should know how to advance their discipline both in an academically and socially meaningful manner.

Autonomy brings with it the necessary flexibility for each department and each academic to chart the necessary course which will improve themselves and their own disciplines.

And who should know better what that course should be than those who have trained in that discipline.

I am not against the publishing of works in reputable journals. I acknowledge that they are important to the advancement of academic thought.

What I am saying is that the diversity of academia means that there are numerous methods to determine quality. And the best way to achieve quality is by having true academic autonomy so that those who know best are the ones who determine the way to achieve the best.

BRAVE NEW WORLD By AZMI SHAROM
azmisharom@yahoo.co.uk

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Top 10 universities in South East Asia, Malaysia not in!
Malaysian education heavily politicised, Quality and English not up to par!.

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