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Upgrading Our Universities to the World Class Status

How do you measure the world class status in any given university? Well, this is a very complex question for which no perfect answer is found.

by Dr Jayaratne Pinikahana
(November 07, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) Dr Sunil Nawaratne, Secretary to the Ministry of Higher education told one of the major  weekend newspapers last week that six Sri Lankan universities namely Peradeniya, Colombo, Moratura, Kelaniya, Jayewardenepura and Ruhuna  will be upgraded to the world class status soon. He has also stressed three conditions that need to be fulfilled in order to gain world class status of our universities. Firstly, academics should be involved in research and publish their findings in peer reviewed national and international journals, secondly these universities need both local and foreign students and thirdly, the graduates passing out of these universities should be global graduates who could find employment anywhere in the globe. There is no denying the fact these are some of the major attributes of any world class university and Dr Nawaratne should be commended on raising the awareness of  these conditions that need to be taken into account by both academics and university administrators of our universities. Three is no question about improving the facilities of other 9 universities but for this specific project, six universities have been selected for special attention, which is highly desirable and perhaps affordable.

Although the term ‘world class’ is not very clear, it implies international standard of excellence in research, teaching and civic engagement. In recent years, the term ‘world class university’ has become a catch phrase for developing the capacity of many universities to compete in the global higher education market  through a range of strategies. Increasingly, in the competitive global system, as Professor Levin says ‘developing top universities is a ‘tall order’. However, we need to start from somewhere to see whether our universities can compete with other competitors and secure a place within the top 200 universities in the world.

World university rankings
How do you measure the world class status in any given university? Well, this is a very complex question for which no perfect answer is found. The discussion on world class university status seems to be centred around world university rankings and many seem to make reference either to Times Higher Education World University Rankings or QS World University Rankings. The Shanghai Jiao Tong Ranking is also a refutable scheme that has been developed to find out the gap between Chinese Universities and world class universities. However, the most academic authorities do not think that any of these rankings capture adequately the complexity of world university system and what it means to be a world class university.

Of  these three rankings, in my view,  the Times Higher Education Rankings are the most prominent and perhaps the most simplified university rankings of the world. I would therefore like to explore the basic parameters of this scheme to show how world university rankings are made based on their own ranking methodology. Their ranking selects the top 200 universities in the world of which Harvard University,  California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Princeton University, Cambridge, Oxford, University of California, Imperial College of London and Yale University were the top ten universities in sequence in 2010.

Weighting Scheme for Ranking Scores
The Times Higher Education Ranking scheme has been designed to capture a broad range of activities from teaching and research to knowledge transfer. There are five major categories of this scheme under which a range of sub categories are also included;
  1. Teaching-the learning environment(worth 30% of the final ranking)
  1. Research-volume, income and reputation (worth 30%)

  1. Citations-research influence (worth 32.5%)

  1. Industry income-innovation (worth 2.5%)
  1. International mix –staff and students (worth 5%)
  Teaching-the learning environment
This broad category employ 5 separate indicators designed to provide a clear picture of teaching and learning environment of universities. They conduct a world wide survey of experienced scholars looking at their perceived prestige of institutions of both teaching and research. The results of the survey make up 50% of the score in the teaching environment category and 15% of the overall ranking score. This broad category also measures the number  of undergraduate students against the number of academic staff- a kind of student-staff ratio-. The rationale behind this idea is that the lower the ratio, the greater attention the each student receives. It is worth 15% of the teaching category and 4.5% of the overall ranking score. The teaching category also measures the ratio of PhD to Bachelor’s degrees awarded by each university. Again, it is believed that the higher the number of high density research students in any university, the higher the chance of becoming knowledge-intensive institutions. The PhD-bachelor ratio receives a 7.5% weighting in this category and 2.25% for the overall ranking scores. Undergraduate students also tend to value working in a rich environment that includes postgraduates (not PhDs). It is worth 20% of the teaching category and 6% of the overall score. The last sub indicator measures the institutional income against academic staff numbers. This measure is worth 7.5% of teaching category and 2.25% overall.

Research-volume, income and reputation
This indicator is also based on the results of their reputational survey conducted with academics who are knowledgeable about the  reputation of research departments in their respective fields. It is worth 65% of this category and 19.5% of the overall score. This category also measures the university’s research income against staff numbers. It is worth 17.5% of this category and 5.25% overall. The research volume category also includes a simple measure of research volume scaled against staff numbers. They count the number of papers published in quality peer-reviewed the academic journals. This indicator is worth 15% of the category and 4.5% overall. The public research income against an institution’s total research income is also measured under this category which receives 2.5% of the category and .75% overall.

Citations-research influence

A university’s research influence is measured by the number of times its published material is cited by academics. The rationale behind this category is that the use of citation indicates quality of the research and publications. As the Times Higher Education rankers indicate there is a strong correlation between citations counts and research performance. The data are drawn from the 12,000 academic journals indexed by Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science data base. This category is worth 32.5% of the overall ranking score.

Industry income-innovation

This category is designed to cover an institution’s knowledge-transfer activity. A single indicator based on institution’s research income from industry scaled against the number of academic staff is used to determine the overall score. This category represents a comparatively low overall score. It is worth 2.5% of the overall ranking score.

International mix –staff and students
This category looks at the global nature of the institution. The ability of a university to attract the very best staff from around the world is important in terms of global success. This category gives 60% weighting to the ratio of international to domestic staff making up 3% of the overall score. The other indicator is based on the ratio of international to domestic students which shows the institution’s global competitiveness. This measure receives 40% weighting and is worth 2% overall.

Path ahead

What we really need to understand is that this is a very ambitious project that can not be fulfilled overnight and it is not realistic to expect any instant results by pouring any amount of money into this project. It is a long process that we have not even started but setting targets is by no means useless. For example, Professor Don Markwell, Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Western Australia has indicated that they have an explicit goal of becoming one of the top 50 universities in the world within 50 years! What a time line! I think it is a very realistic goal given the shear competition of the global university system. In our case, I think we can set two goals inter alia; firstly, one of the 6 selected universities should become one of the top 200 universities in the world and secondly, all 6 selected universities for upgrade should secure places among the top 1000 universities in the world within 10 years.

It is absolutely clear from the above ranking scheme that teaching, research and internationalisation are vitally important in our journey to become a member of the exclusive group of world class university. As Jamil Salmi says in an article titled ‘The challenge of establishing world class universities’ ‘the highest ranked universities are the ones that make significant contributions to the advancement of knowledge through research, teach with the most innovative curricula and pedagogical methods under most conducive circumstances, make research an integral component of undergraduate teaching, and produce graduates who stand out because of their success in intensively competitive arenas during their education’. This statement summarises what exactly we need to do in order to achieve our target.

In a nutshell, the following critical aspects of our university system need to be reviewed and addressed to guide our quest towards establishing world class universities.

  • The curricula revision of our universities which fits into the international standards;
  • The introduction of English as the medium of instruction in universities;
  • Setting up a research funding body similar to the Australia Research Council(ARC) and National Heath and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) to fund peer reviewed academic research projects;
  • Incentives to publish in quality peer- reviewed national and international journals;
  • Establishing  links with the industry both private and public for collaborative research;
  • Attracting research contracts from foreign firms and research organisations;
  • Establishing fruitful partnerships with top universities in the world;
  • Promoting our universities overseas to attract  foreign students and
  • Attracting leading scholars from the diaspora and inviting them to return.
(The writer can be reached at jpinikahana@epilepsy.asn.au )

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