99 miserable universities

Why does everyone in Pakistan seem to hate the Higher Education Commission’s new ranking of the nation’s universities? One obvious reason, as Javaid Laghari notes in his blog, is that there are bound to be 99 unhappy universities in any table of the top 100.

But the real crime of these rankings seems to be that they have adopted a methodology that is too close for comfort to that used by world university ranking systems, especially by making research a major emphasis.

This raises the objection that HEC is only measuring measurable stuff, not important but less tangible university functions such as personal development.

But despite the criticism that they use inappropriate measures, the HEC rankings do use some indicators such as

student qualifications and library spend that are more normally associated with national than with global ranking.

Perhaps more to the point, local commentators agree that these rankings are only putting some

decorative gloss on a university system which requires something more like radical surgery. The QS World University Rankings place only four Pakistani institutions in the 700-ish institutions which it lists. They are the National University of Science and Technology (in the 401-450 bracket), the University of Engineering and Technology, and the Universities of Karachi and Lahore (these three all in 601+ group that completes the world table). NUST is also 84th in our Asian University Rankings, making it the top Pakistani institution there too.

These results show that Pakistan’s standing in higher education is on a par with its position on other measures of global influence. It ought to be a world leader. It has the background and the people it needs to become one. But it is far from being there yet.

But the real issue is just where these rankings will lead Pakistan’s universities. It is impossible to prevent these rankings, or any rankings, from driving the management mindset of the universities they measure. If they continue to be published, Pakistan’s universities will soon be spending more time on formal teaching and on research, and less on the personal development of their students, than they do today.

Maybe one way forward is for the universities themselves to propose new measures. In a world ranking, it is famously hard to get consistent measures of university quality in softer areas such as public activity by the student body. But it should be simpler within a single national structure.

And of course, it’s never ideal to have the government body responsible for universities running the system that ranks them. It sends them a crude message about priorities that damages institutional autonomy. Best for HEC to look around for a new group to run future iterations of this ranking.

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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