Sunday, August 28, 2011

Push for rankings stirs trouble


Success often comes with a price. No one knows it better than Universiti Malaya vice-chancellor Prof Tan Sri Dr Ghauth Jasmon, who has ruffled feathers in his pursuit to place the varsity among the top 100 worldwide.

ONE OF the first things that newly-appointed Universiti Malaya vice-chancellor Prof Tan Sri Dr Ghauth Jasmon did was to check on the productivity of its academia in 2009.

The results served a rude awakening as it showed that only 250 people — about 10% of UM’s academic staff – published at least one research paper a year.

Prof Ghauth wants to bring UM back to its former glory.It was embarassing to have the oldest and premier university in the country lagging behind a few of its peers in this aspect. Based on the Malaysian Research Asessment Instrument (MyRA) scores, UM ranked behind Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and Universiti Putra Malaysia.

As MyRA focused on the fundamentals of a university — research and development (R&D), R&D commercialisiation and the number of PhD staff, among others — it was clear to Prof Ghauth that a shake up was imperative. Hence, the move to reward academics who actively published papers in high impact journals like the Thomson ISI (Institute for Scientific Information), which includes citation databases covering thousands of academic journals, such as the Science Citation Index, the Social Sciences Citation Index and the Arts and Humanities Citation Index.

With the new policy in place, the number of publications began to rise and so did UM’s stability in the rankings — constantly hovering around the 200 mark in the QS World University Rankings.

Prof Ghauth’s principal target is to break into the top 100 of the QS rankings by 2015 (currently at 207) and the top 50 by 2020.

Another sweetener for UM was breaking into the top 500 in the Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s 2011 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) for the first time.

The university has also been given the green light to proceed with its Health Metropolis – an Entry Point Project for Healthcare under the Economic Transformation Programme.

Joining the ranks

But these achievements come with a price. UM made headlines in a local daily recently, quoting UM’s academic staff association president Assoc Prof Dr Azmi Sharom that it was facing a staff crisis – reflected by an exodus of 146 academic staff since 2009 – as academics were dissatisfied with the vice-chancellor.

The unhappiness was attributed to Prof Ghauth’s policies which tightened promotion procedures and placed an emphasis on ISI publications.

Although Dr Azmi went public to stress that he said no such thing – his name had been misused by his fellow association members – the damage was done and Prof Ghauth called a hastily convened press conference where he outlined the true situation and the need for a transformation plan. He added that UM’s actual turnover of an average of 30 each year was normal for any varsity.

Refuting allegations that he was obsessed with rankings, Prof Ghauth said UM had a responsibility to be competitive and develop to a point where it could be compared with renowned varsities like Harvard, Princeton, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tsinghua, among others.

“The National University of Singapore (NUS) is always in the top 100 and Thailand has two varsities – Mahidol and Chulalongkorn – in the 100-200 band under QS,” he said at the press conference.

“There is no reason for us to be behind these varsities as UM and NUS started on equal footing at the same time. As vice-chancellor, I am saddened that we are lagging behind and it is my responsibility to bring UM up.”

Prof Ghauth has been credited with gumption as he is seen to be the only vice-chancellor who aspires to play the rankings game.

“He was brave enough to put his head on the chopping block and it’s an admirable trait as the risks are great,” shares a policy maker.

Prof Ghauth’s offer was timely as the Opposition are constantly nipping at the heels of the Government over the poor representation of Malaysian varsities in various university rankings.

“Although not everyone in the ministry reads too much into rankings, the Government is under pressure. Are we really that bad that we can’t have a university in the top 200?” says a source.

One size doesn’t fit all

Although QS and the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings parted ways in 2009, both continue to place heavy weightage on research and the peer review components. The ARWU also places a similar emphasis on these.

The number of publications in high impact journals like the ISI has a great bearing on a varsity’s rank.

This correlation is captured in UM’s new promotion mechanism – in effect from 2010 to June 2013 – where academic staff must produce a certain number of publications before they can move up the ladder (See Table 1).

And although this is a sore point for some, UM deputy vice-chancellor (Development) Prof Dr Kurunathan Ratnavelu (who carried out the analysis of UM’s staff productivity) says the new policies embrace meritocracy and it is the first time such a benchmarking style has been implemented.

Having served at UM for 22 years, Prof Kurunathan opines that the core issue is really about increasing productivity. However, rankings ultimately depend on research productivity so there is a correlation.

“The new policies eradicate notions of permanency but stress that performance determines one’s rise – or stagnation – in the hierarchy.”

However, a number of academics disagree with this rationale and most of those express concern over UM’s obsession with rankings.

“The union supports the promotion of meritocracy as we have ‘deadwood’ in UM,” says Dr Azmi.

Prof Kurunathan says the new policies embrace meritocracy. “However, we are concerned that UM seems particularly enamoured with rankings to the point where staff are pressured to produce ISI publications.”

He adds that high impact journal publication is a criterion used by rankers for the sole reason that it could be measured conveniently.

His deputy, Assoc Prof Dr Rosli Mahat, says many have no clear idea of a university’s essence apart from the prototype propagated through the rankings.

“Look at the QS and THE rankings and ask yourself who works out the criteria. Businessmen and newspapers!” he shares.

“In this light, we should base our criteria on the Unesco recommendations for higher education teaching staff which advocates institutional autonomy, accountability, collegiality and the security of employment, among others.”

The dissenters, including academics from UM’s medical faculty, hit out at the rigid one-size-fits-all policy, while at the same time concede that abuse did indeed occur in the absence of objective criteria.

A medical lecturer points out that academia is more than just publishing in journals.

“One’s ability in stimulating intellectual discussion and mentoring students should be taken into account, just as one’s expertise in the field as well as the quality of coaching,” he says..

Another medical lecturer shares the problems that arise when there is a blanket requirement for a professorship regardless of one’s field of study.

“A doctor’s main concern is patient care, so we focus on clinical research that will benefit professionals in the treatment of patients.

“The gestation period for such research can easily be six years; how is it then possible to produce multiple high impact papers every year?” she says.

She adds that locally relevant research will fall by the wayside if the focus is “to pursue the goal of ISI journal publication alone”.

“For example, something that doctors really need now is measuring cancer prevalence in Malaysia and it takes a lot of time to do so.

“But at the end of it, this is not going to be published in an ISI journal because the information is only relevant for Malaysia,” she says.

A former professor adds no one in their right mind goes into academia to make money.

“Most academics enter the university environment because they are excited about knowledge, are interested in peer collegiality and interaction with students, and want that pinnacle achievement of attaining a professorship,” he says.

Adopting a neutral stance, Dr Azmi thinks it might have been easier if the vice-chancellor had adopted a more inclusive approach from the start. Less insistence on various policies would have given Prof Ghauth an effective buy-in and much of the drama could have been avoided.

“In all fairness, the vice-chancellor has softened his stance on ISI publications, and academics — particularly those in non-scientific fields — can factor in books and other publications,” he says.

Despite the internal resistance, there is an air of resignation that the ironclad resolve for high impact publications will not bend.

And if that is indeed the case, Dr Azmi says appropriate remuneration adjustments should be in place.

“If UM academics work harder than their counterparts at other public varsities to meet publication targets, this must be reflected in their basic salary.

“Without such a distinction, what’s going to stop academics from moving to other varsities where they can retain their titles and ‘work less’ for the same pay?”

It must be noted, however, that the cash nexus is firmly entrenched in UM’s transformation plan and Prof Ghauth has highlighted the need for UM to secure diverse revenue streams.

This is to achieve financial autonomy – cutting dependence on Government funding – and obtaining the financial muscle to meet the needs – and wants – of its staff.

Parameters of success have been set and if all goes according to plan, UM will be able to sustain 50% of its operating expenses (Opex) by 2015 and 70% by 2020 – providing the varsity with the capacity to double staff salaries in about nine years.

The staff association shares Prof Ghauth’s concern on income generation.

“We understand the varsity doesn’t have much of a choice as we can’t afford to depend on the Government forever,” says Dr Azmi.

However, academics on both sides of the fence are split on Prof Ghauth’s leadership style.

UM IT department director Dr David Asirvatham says things had to be improved among academics.

“We have seen a boost in publications, research activity and teaching quality after Prof Ghauth took over. I believe the silent majority are behind him,” he adds.

Concurring, Prof Kurunathan says UM’s increasing research productivity is testament of Prof Ghauth’s qualities.

“Statistics show that 1,300 papers were published in 2009, followed by 1,800 last year.

“We’re hoping to pass the 2,000 mark – a psychological barrier – this year; but we should not be too proud of ourselves as NUS publishes around 5,000 papers each year,” he adds.

The road ahead

Interestingly, sources in UM opine that the erroneous front page report was part of a coordinated attempt to oust its vice-chancellor.

In an uncanny coincidence, the report’s publication coincided with the Umno Supreme Council meeting – guaranteeing maximum impact and publicity.

It is learnt that the pressure group is also knocking on the ministry’s door but while the die may be cast, it must be noted that some of the dissenters are actually concerned by the lack of leadership stability at UM.

Although critics point out that a three-year term is normal for any vice-chancellor, the fact remains that UM has had four different vice-chancellors since 2000 and this does not bode well in terms of continuity.

Interestingly, this is best summed up by a dissenter who empathises with Prof Ghauth. The lecturer who is near retirement acknowledges that “he has good intentions of improving UM’s standing”.

There have been too many vice-chancellors in a short period of time and with each new appointment, there is a shift of goalposts for the university, he adds.

And while the drama and debate may rage on, the vice-chancellor is taking it all on the chin, determined to accomplish as much as he can while navigating the minefield of dissent.