Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the best of all? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 29, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:16 AM, November 29, 2019

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the best of all?

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to post about it on Facebook, has the tree really fallen? The moment an image is posted on Facebook (or any other social media), our ritualised collective energy creates a perception of reality about it. Social media today is so pervading that it can reduce reality to a notional construct. It is the doors of perception that separate the real from the unreal. The same is true for higher education where we are confronted by one such image-driven construct. Higher education is the new habitus for ranking.

A few months back, while inaugurating a conference at ULAB, UGC Chair Prof Kazi Shahidullah responded to the criticism against the dismal ranking performance of the University of Dhaka. He snubbed it by saying, “We all know where Dhaka University stands. We don’t need an external agency to judge it.” At that time, I will be honest, I felt Prof Shahidullah’s observation to be a bit conservative. I was taken aback by the absence of vision and vigour with which you expect your academic leader to foray into the ranking game—the big league in which we want our universities to perform and excel. Then again, in my own capacity as an academic administrator, when I joined the “dear golden deer” hunt of university ranking, I started to see the fallacy that goes in the name of ranking. I realised it was easier said than done. Full credit goes to those who have achieved it. There are, however, some foundational flaws that stop our local universities from going big. A major root canaling needs to be done before we can bite the ranking cake.

As I write this piece, I notice a snake crawling at the bottom bar of my TV screen hissing the two-slot elevation of our batsman Mushfiqur Rahim in Test batting ranking. The banality of the claim will be obvious to anyone who has watched the recent pink onslaught. The news of Mushfiq’s rise to number 26 sounds very hollow and unpleasant as our entire team could not even match up to the total of a rookie batsman of the opponent. The same is the case with our university ranking. Our oldest university recently shored up outside the 1000 list on one ranking site; and lo, that is news!

In Old English, the root word for rank is “ranc,” which was used to describe a person known for being “proud, overbearing and showy.” The word has a “rancid” French connection before it got militarised to earn its positive touch to denote, “put in order, or to classify.” In the last decade or so, ranking has become a buzzword in the academic world. It has become the badge of quality and prestige. Three ranking sheriffs—Shanghai Ranking Consultancy (the Academic Ranking of World Universities; ARWU), Times Higher Education (THE), and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS)—are brandishing different universities with different ranks and files. They primarily measure the research performance of a university rather than its teaching quality, and look at a distinct set of parameters, while promising neutrality and fairness in their assessment.  

However, only three percent of the world’s universities make it to the global ranking lists compiled by these agencies. Does it mean that the remaining 97 percent universities are not good enough? The agencies will claim that their algorithm is near perfect in analysing the available data on the website of the universities. They cross-match the information with perceptions of various stakeholders: employers, alumni, academic fraternity, and the industry. The report card given by them immensely influences the decision of the incoming students who are going to invest their time and money in higher education or the employers who will hire graduates from these institutions.  

Ranking adds to the perception of a university. The perceptions then pile on to create an image which is inseparable from the presumed reality. For instance, a local newspaper conducted a survey among various stakeholders and reviewed the available information that the universities have given to UGC, and came up with a ranking of local private universities in Bangladesh. The one that topped the list claimed that it had 403 PhD holders in its faculty fold. Curiouser and curiouser! I sifted through their website and could count only up to two hundred. The rest are perhaps composed of part-time teachers who probably teach at multiple universities or are visiting lecturers or occasional speakers. Surely, the institution concerned duped the system by supplying fabricated data to climb up the ranking ladder.

I guess this is what they call, “data creativity.” There are many ways you can do it. Anyone who visited your website to learn about your admission system can be termed as an admission seeker. Then when you publish the admission test results, you show the visitors as rejected candidates. Thus, you claim that you have a higher rejection rate to prove your superiority. Or, you give scholarships to some students from poor countries, and employ these overseas students as lab assistants to show them as your instructors to claim that you have a high proportion of international faculty members. Or, your library has four copies of one title; technically that is one catalogue entry.  If you have purchased 1000 books a year, you can make a four times higher claim. Or, your university can show its proposed land site as its floor space to score high on the physical resources category. Or, you spur your research citations through self-citations or hire a ghost faculty with impressive H-index who will upgrade your research profile. The topper in the local research category is therefore a shocker.  

Ideally, you would think universities as the smithy of the future generation would never forge such things. Universities, “the soul of the nation,” are expected to maintain certain ethical standards. But would you blame a university for engaging in subtle crafts when its peers are all exaggerating? Besides, if you do not walk the walk and talk the talk, then you are actually misleading others as the value of these data is mainly comparative.

The last suggestion can be pitched as a conscience saver. But who needs conscience when business is the ulterior motive? As a state university, Dhaka University probably does not need to enter the race, except for bolstering its ego. The private system is a different ball game. In a dog-eat-dog world, the data police needs to be kept satisfied. The only way you can do so is by maintaining the figures as per international standards. Whether you want to go for a full fat Keto diet or a rigorous strict diet depends on the outlook and orientation of the university concerned.

The uniformed parameters of the ranking agencies comfort participating universities with the illusion of a fair game; the reality is, the criteria of university rankings are biased towards the wealthy and the elite. A very good university (like the tree in the forest) may thrive outside the radar of the data police and ranking authorities. If that particular university does not have an updated website or an aggressive marketing strategy, it may not appear on the ranking scene. Maybe that university does not have the funds to publish in prestigious journals, or host a bunch of Nobel laureates, or throw around an obscene amount of PR budget; but it produces good citizens and good graduates. Still, it is the image constructed by the big data that will speak in favour of the one standing before the mirror.

The choice then is simple:  aim high or claim nigh (and heave a sigh). And the choice is ours!


Shamsad Mortuza is Professor of English, University of Dhaka. Currently on leave, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB. Email: shamsad71@hotmail.com 

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