Recently, Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR), a private Malaysian university, welcomed what appeared to be an outstanding performance in the Times Higher Education (THE) Asian Universities Rankings, followed by a good score in the magazine’s Young University Rankings. This has been interpreted as a remarkable achievement not just for UTAR but also for Malaysian higher education in general.
In the Asian rankings, UTAR is ranked in the top 120 and second in Malaysia behind Universiti Malaya (UM) and ahead of the major research universities, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and Universiti Putra Malaysia.
This is sharp contrast to other rankings. There is a research based ranking published by Middle East Technical University that puts UTAR 12th in Malaysia and 589th in Asia. The Webometrics ranking, which is mainly web based with one research indicator, has it 17th in Malaysia and 651st in Asia.
The QS rankings, known to be kind to South East Asian universities, puts UTAR in the 251-300 band for Asia and 14th= in Malaysia behind places like Taylor’s University and Multi Media University and in the same band as Universiti Malaysia Perlis and Universiti Malaysia Terengganu. UTAR does not appear in the Shanghai rankings or the Russian Round University Rankings.
Clearly, THE is the odd man out among rankings in its assessment of UTAR. I suspect that if challenged a spokesperson for THE might say that this is because they measure things other than research. That is very debatable. Bahram Bekhradnia of the Higher Education Policy Institute has argued in a widely-cited report that these rankings are of little value because they are almost entirely research-orientated.
In fact, UTAR did not perform so well in the THE Asian rankings because of teaching, internationalisation or links with industry. It did not even do well in research. It did well because of an “outstanding” score for research impact and it got that score because of the combination of a single obviously talented researcher with a technically defective methodology.
Just take a look at UTAR’s scores for the various components in the THE Asian rankings. For Research UTAR got a very low score of 9.6, the lowest of the nine Malaysian universities featured in these rankings (100 represents the top score in all the indicators).
For Teaching it has a score of 15.9, also the lowest of the ranked Malaysian universities.
For International Orientation, it got a score of 33.2. This was not quite the worst in Malaysia. Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), which does not admit non– bumiputra Malaysians, let alone international students, did worse.
For Industry Income UTAR’s score was 32.9, again surpassed by every Malaysian university except UiTM.
So how on earth did UTAR manage to get into the top 120 in Asia and second in Malaysia?
The answer is that it got an “excellent” score of 56.7 for Research Impact, measured by field-normalised citations, higher than every other Malaysian university, including UM, in these rankings.
That score is also higher than several major international research universities such as National Taiwan University, the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, Kyoto University and Tel Aviv University. That alone should make the research impact score very suspicious. Also, compare the score with the low score for research which combines three metrics, research reputation, research income and publications. Somehow UTAR has managed to have a huge impact on the research world even though it receives little money for research, does not have much of a reputation for research, and does not publish very much.
The THE research impact (citations) indicator is very problematical in several ways. It regularly produces utterly absurd results such as Alexandria University in Egypt in fourth place for research impact in the world in 2010 and St George’s, University of London (a medical school), in first place last year, or Anglia Ruskin University, a former art school, equal to Oxford and well ahead of Cambridge University.
In addition, to flog a horse that should have decomposed by now, Veltech University in Chennai, India, according to THE has biggest research impact in Asia and perhaps, if it qualified for the World Rankings, in the world. This was done by massive self-citation by exactly one researcher and a little bit of help from a few friends.
Second in Asia for research, THE would have us believe, is King Abdulaziz University of Jeddah which has been on recruiting spree of adjunct faculty whose duties might include visiting the university but certainly do require putting its name as secondary affiliation in research papers.
To rely on the THE rankings as a measure of excellence is unwise. There were methodological changes in 2011, 2015 and 2016, which have contributed to universities moving up or down many places even if there has been no objective change. Middle East Technical University in Ankara, for example, fell from 85th place in 2014-15 to the 501-600 band in 2015-6 and then to the 601-800 band in 2016-17. Furthermore, adding new universities means that the average scores from which the final scores are calculated are likely to fluctuate.
In addition, THE has been known to recalibrate the weight given to its indicators in their regional rankings and this has sometimes worked to the advantage of whoever is the host of THE’s latest exciting and prestigious summit. In 2016, THE’s Asian rankings featured an increased weight for research income from industry and a reduced one for teaching and research reputation. This was to the disadvantage of Japan and to the benefit of Hong Kong where the Asian summit was held.
So, is UTAR really more influential among international researchers than Kyoto University or the National Taiwan University?
What actually happened to UTAR is that it has an outstanding medical researcher who is involved in a massive international medical project with hundreds of collaborators from hundreds of institutions that produces papers that have been cited hundreds of times and will in the next few years be cited thousands of times. One of these papers had, by my count, 720 contributors from 470 universities and research centres and has so far received 1,036 citations, 695 in 2016 alone.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with such projects but it is ridiculous to treat every one of those 720 contributors as though they were the sole author of the paper with credit for all the citations, which is what THE does. This could have been avoided simply by using fractional counting and dividing the number of citations by the number of authors or number of affiliating institutions. This is an option available in the Leiden Ranking, which is the most technically expert of the various rankings. THE already does this for publications with over 1,000 contributors but that is obviously not enough.
I would not go as far as Bahram Bekhradnia and other higher education experts and suggest that universities should ignore rankings altogether. But if THE are going to continue to peddle such a questionable product then Malaysian universities would be well advised to keep their distance. There are now several other rankings on the marking that could be used for benchmarking and marketing.
It is not a good idea for UTAR to celebrate its achievement in the THE rankings. It is quite possible that the researcher concerned will one day go elsewhere or that THE will tweak its methodology again. If either happens the university will suffer from a precipitous fall in the rankings along with a decline in its public esteem. UTAR and other Malaysian universities would be wise to treat the THE rankings with a great deal of caution and scepticism.