Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Decline of varsities, rush for rankings traced back to ‘academic imperialism’

Chandra Muzaffar says an obsession with global rankings has a role in the overall decline of local universities, but it also reflects Malaysia's status-conscious society.

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An obsession with world rankings as well as the absence of efforts to eradicate academic fraud have been cited as the reasons behind the deterioration of Malaysia’s higher education standards, says a prominent social critic in the wake of a new finding seen as damaging to Malaysian universities.

Chandra Muzaffar, a former academic who made headlines in the late 1990s when he was sacked as a professor by Universiti Malaya, said no serious attention had been paid to addressing the deterioration of Malaysia’s higher education standards, which he said could be traced back to the 80s.

“There is a mix-up in priorities where we are more concerned about rankings. If you look at universities abroad, when they were developing they were not crazy about rankings,” he told MalaysiaNow.

On Sunday, MalaysiaNow cited the findings of two professors from the Czech Republic, which among others placed Malaysian academics alongside other top authors whose works were published in more than 300 “predatory journals”, or publications with questionable content and editorial standards which often accept articles for a fee.

A total of 324 such journals published from across the world were found to have infiltrated Scopus, a Netherlands-based global citation database used as a benchmark by global university ranking agencies in evaluating universities worldwide.

Ranking craze

Chandra said the fixation of local universities on getting better rankings was a recent development, which had led to a rush to publish research works and to get cited in academic databases.

Chandra Muzaffar

“This craziness about rankings is a very recent thing.

“I see this as part of a larger imperial game to depict certain universities as subordinates. This is actually to perpetuate the dominance of certain mainly Western universities,” he said.

“Portraying these universities as the acme of excellence is aimed at ensuring that the ideas, individuals and courses associated with them remain as the standard bearers of knowledge.”

Every year, at least two organisations publish their lists of universities from around the world, ranking them according to scores using indicators.

Last year, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings listed universities in Britain, the US and other European countries in the top 20 spots among more than 1,500 universities in 93 countries.

Western universities also dominated the top spots in a list compiled by QS University Rankings, another global index published from the UK.

Chandra said universities should not waste time getting into global rankings but concentrate instead on improving their quality of research.

“The basic mission of the university is to impart knowledge.”

Old problem

Chandra said he did not think there had been any serious attempt to arrest the slide in the country’s quality of tertiary education.

Giving an example, he said academic fraud such as plagiarism had continued in Malaysian universities.

“That is why plagiarism which is a mortal sin in the academia has gone unchecked, and also why people pursue their careers by getting cited in questionable journals.

“The same is the case with an academic who plagiarises a thesis or work which is actually the product and labour of a student, and published as a joint effort carrying both names.”

He said the problem is not new, and goes back to the 80s when universities were used to nurture political support for certain leaders in the government at that time.

He said the pursuit of academic ranks was symptomatic of a larger problem in society such as the emphasis on status.

“It is an indisputable fact that Malaysia is a deeply status conscious society where status linked to position or title often determines the worth and value of an individual.”

Chandra said reforming the country’s higher education system did not stop at amending restrictive laws under the Universities and University Colleges Act.

“Attitudes, values and priorities will have to be transformed. This is a Herculean task which no government has undertaken.”

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