Let me share my two strong beliefs when it comes to higher education in Pakistan. First, I believe that higher education is an absolute must for our growth and development, and any path that leads to our prosperity, tolerance and innovation as its destination has to go through higher education. Second, I also believe that the Higher Education Commission (HEC) is an important national institution and the mission of the organisation, to promote a culture of innovation, scholarship and inquiry, is an important one. We can, hopefully in a tolerant and mature voice, express our opinions about what can be done to improve the system, but the institution itself is an integral component of national development.
That said, I strongly disagree with the HEC policy of ranking higher education institutions within the country. I am not interested in why a certain university is ranked above another, my problem is with the practice itself. Here, my goal is to describe why this is ethically problematic and why it can have an overall negative impact on the society.
Let us start with ethics. The ranking of higher education institutions is a global fad these days. Carried out in nearly every region of the world, these rankings, using a variety of criteria, reduce the work of educational institutions to a single number.
What is important to note here is that nearly all rankings are done by newspapers, magazines or other organisations that use these rankings for marketing and sales.
The federally mandated goal of US News, Times Higher Education or QS is not to create a culture of innovation, research and education.
These private enterprises are not vested in national development and do not care about promoting a culture of research.
On the other hand, the HEC is a completely different institution, with a different mandate. It does not need to worry about marketing and sales, instead its mission is to help the country develop and foster a culture of education and innovation and support the national institutions.
When the HEC supports various institutions in a myriad of ways, and remains the most prominent funding agency in the country, ranking the very institutions it supports is not only a conflict of interest, it is also contradictory to the mission. The HEC as the sole provider to these institutions, can never objectively judge their quality, since success largely depends on the very funds that it provides. Ranking your own children is never the best practice.
The second aspect is potential impact on society. In a society obsessed with reduction of complex things to a single metric, a lot is lost when an educational institution is ranked by a federal agency. Institutions have various strengths and weaknesses, which may make them suitable or unsuitable for a potential student. By having an official ranking that invariably becomes a seal of approval, universities at the lower end of the list may lose out on potential students who may be a perfect fit.
Additionally, this list may also be highly misleading for parents of prospective students, who may choose solely based on this ranking, instead of multitude of other important factors. Finally, because the HEC rankings change every year, students at a given university may find themselves regretting their decisions, based on rankings from prior years.
Ranking a university is not the same as ranking a cricket player or the most popular restaurant of the city. University rankings, created, marketed and touted by the HEC can have real, long-term consequences. There is no data on whether creating rankings helps the higher education system as a whole.
What the HEC should do is to provide detailed data on national universities and their performance, without reducing the entire performance to a single metric. They should share the analysis of the universities with the nation, celebrate areas of success and define areas that need to improve and in doing so help the universities that are not performing well in any given area.
In the end, HEC has to decide what its real vision is — to follow the fad created by news organisations for a bite-sized ranking, or to create a national culture of innovation, scholarship and national pride in higher education.
I hope that they will choose the latter. - Express Tribune