Wednesday October 27, 2021

University rankings

September 18, 2021

Recently, a number of Pakistani universities made the headlines when the UK’s Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2021 included them in its list of Top 1,000 universities.

Among the top 1,000 universities, one university was ranked in the 201-300 band, two were featured in the 301-400 band, five were ranked in the 401 and 600 band, nine in the 601-800 band, and ten in the 801-1000 rank band. Of these, four universities are in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Islamabad each and three are in Punjab.

However, there are a few doubts on the credibility of the ranking: Why are some of the country’s leading and best-performing universities, that deserve the top ranking, at the bottom of the list? It was also surprising to see that other lesser-known universities were ranked higher in the list. It was also a bit troubling to see that the following universities Aga Khan University, the Pakistan Institute of Engineering and Applied Sciences (PIEAS), the Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Engineering Sciences and Technology (GIK), the University of Karachi, Punjab University, University of Engineering and Technology (UET), Lahore and the NED University of Engineering were not included in the list.

To understand how these rankings work, we first need to understand what criteria are used by different ranking agencies, and which one suits us. When I was in the US, I closely observed the process and procedures of these ranking systems (this was before the Higher Education Commission (HEC) existed in Pakistan). Five well-known international ranking systems are being practiced in the world today: Shanghai Jiao Tong, Baldrige, Webometrics, Times Higher Education (THE), and QS World University Rankings. There are others as well but they are either not global or more tailored to a specific interest group.

Each ranking has its strong and weak points. Some universities can even consolidate its data in certain areas in a way to accommodate the best conditions, get more points, and be ranked higher. When I took charge of the HEC in 2009, we closely examined and analysed all ranking systems and decided to focus on the criteria used by QS and THE University Rankings. At that time, no university was ranked among the world’s top universities. We blazed a trail with our strategy, and two of Pakistanis universities were successfully added in the list of Top 250 QS Asian Universities, in 2010. The numbers continued to increase every year: four in 2011, six in 2012, and 10 in 2013. We expected the momentum to continue, but the HEC, unfortunately, lost its focus under the two subsequent chairpersons.

What was our strategy that helped us increase the number of universities in the list and ensure that they were ranked higher? Much effort was made at both the HEC and universities’ levels. Various HEC reforms, which were initiated by Dr Atta-ur-Rahman, helped universities improve its teaching and research practices. The result of these reforms was that THE included a few Pakistani universities among the world’s top 500 universities. With a renewed goal of increasing the number of universities in the top ranking, the quality assurance (QA) division at the HEC, which was led by DG Zia Batool, was assigned the task to identify key parametres which could improve our universities’ ranking.

An MOU was simultaneously signed with the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) to improve education quality at universities through the newly established quality enhancement cells (QECs) at our varsities. A coordinated effort between the HEC and the country’s universities was made, which included organising workshops for capacity building to prepare these universities for ranking (both local and global) exercise.

Simultaneously, we initiated our own HEC ranking, in 2010 to enable our universities to participate and prepare the data as required by international ranking agencies. Universities were ranked in seven categories: general, medical, business, engineering and technology, computer science and information technology, agriculture and veterinary sciences, and arts and design. This enabled the universities to identify their weaknesses as well as build on their strengths, and to compete and be ranked globally. This strategy clearly paid off as more universities made to the annual rankings.

The HEC had tried to imitate the structure of the two leading ranking agencies THE and QS to develop its ranking criteria, with major emphasis on teaching quality and research. The former focused on the student-to-faculty ratio, the PhD faculty-to-total faculty ratio, faculty training, admission critera, the number of computers, books and journals, etc. Also, there was a score for the implementation of the HEC QA criteria. For research, the institution looked at the number of research publications, citations, the number of full-time PhD faculty, PhD output, and the number of conferences organised.

Our efforts paid off and we received iconic recognition when the HEC ranking model was recognised globally by the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) at its 2012 Annual Meeting at Jamaica, West Indies as “an appropriate model for the developing world”. The DG HEC was invited to a plenary presentation on ‘Imprints of Rankings in Pakistan’ at the annual meeting, which was attended by over 150 vice chancellors from Commonwealth countries. At this meeting, the Pakistan model was applauded as an indigenous Asian model reflecting on regional context without compromising on global compatibility. The HEC ranking model was also adopted by some Islamic countries at the sixth Islamic conference of ministers of higher education held in Khartoum, Sudan, in 2012. The OIC countries subsequently asked the HEC to assist them in the development of the first independent university ranking system for Muslim countries.

The HEC needs to resume from where we left off in 2014. The QA division along with universities’ QECs can take the lead again to ensure that our universities build up the required capacity and participate in global rankings. Only then will we be recognised globally and be able to reach the same level as that of the world’s best universities’.

The writer is a former chairperson of the HEC.