Where to?

Future pathways for a peripheral university.

July 7, 2014

Some months ago, the news about my home university increasing its Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) ranking from 68th to 67th across Asian universities and maintaining its position among the top 10 ASEAN universities was met with lukewarm response. It made national news (partly because the other two rival private universities dropped down in their ranking), but received little following discussion, compared to the then ongoing inter-university basketball tournament. Personally, I find this obsession over sporting events and the lack of debate of serious stuff like the planned overhaul of the promotion and tenure system to align with QS performance indicators sorely disappointing.

The news followed what a recent article by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics remarks as part of the general trend of increased emphasis on graduate enrollment across Asia and the underlying ethos.

The article remarks about how increased investment in higher education is partly fueled by the thinking that a better workforce yields positive economic outcomes (i.e. greater competitiveness) only if the country is perceived well internationally. And this international perception’s proxy is university ranking. While their governments provide overriding focus on national development goals, the views from the ground (i.e. among faculty and educational administrators) in Malaysia and Thailand are mixed. While Malaysian respondents are gung-ho about following the Western model of publication in top-tier journals, Thailand interviewees express a more balanced concern about their universities’ societal relevance.The Thais hesitate at the idea  that more focus on English language publication would undermine their efforts at conveying their research results to the Thai public.

Reading this article reminds me of the same dilemma that my home university faces. International ranking matters, and it  is widely used by university administrators to demand more government subsidies and justify profound policy changes in the way we operate. The 2012 presentation to the Philippine House Budget Committee Hearing (UP: Shaping Minds that Shape the Nation) glows about UP being number 1 in all national metrics such as the number of national artists, scientists or licensure passers, but makes it clear that it remains a “poor cousin” to better performing Asian universities in terms of publication rate and internationalization. Public service, although # 3 in the university’s mandate, does not receive as much traction, perhaps because there is confidence that Philippine society already values our contribution. I pose that as a question, as I remember one local legislator from Iloilo who lambasted our oil-spill expert professor before a public hearing on allegations that my university had done nothing for the district where our campus is located. While my heart went out to my poor colleague, the legislator does have a point— we as an institution have not made a definitive contribution to our locality in the way traditional town-gown relations are conceived. Alas, UP’s elitist reputation meant we have not broken bread at all with ordinary people. To many of us, working for the “public” means sitting in some consultant capacity or as research implementor to a national government agency or international organisation project. Except for the more notable outreach initiatives such as BIDANI (rural nutrition) and Pahinungod (teaching in underserved high schools), we cannot really claim to have made a direct impact in our communities.

I wish to be more like the Thais with a more balanced sense of civic duty and  economic development contribution. Give the prolific peer-reviewed publishers their due, but put equal weight on doing good in our own localities. There’s more to life than quantitative measures of global greatness.  


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