14 November 2012
It is unwise to choose a university purely based on its position in the ranking table as many excellent universities are not even ranked.
I GOT a few comments from my last article saying that rankings were a good thing and you need to rank universities to know which are better than the others. And the fact that I was speaking against rankings means I am firstly, not progressive and secondly, lazy. Well, I can’t really argue with the second accusation.
Be that as it may, let me make my position clear. I am not against rankings per se. What I am against is the formation of university policies based on the ranking criteria, for reasons I talked about two weeks ago.
Furthermore, depending on what you are looking for in a university, you may find excellent universities which are not ranked. I am thinking of some very good American liberal arts colleges where students get an excellent holistic education but because publications are not high on the university’s agenda, they rank poorly.
The reason why the issue of university education is being discussed again in this column is because I just read that the Deputy Prime Minister was going on about how Malaysian universities should be ranked in the top 100 so that we can attract more local and foreign students.
There are of course some advantages to studying here rather than abroad. Firstly, our universities are dead cheap compared with European, American and Antipodean colleges. Secondly, if you are studying a country-specific field, like law, it might be better for you to just learn Malaysian law right from the start.
However, I question the wisdom of choosing a university purely based on its position in the ranking table. For example, I chose to go to the University of Nottingham for my Masters degree because it has a superb international law programme.
Rankings-wise, it’s not so great compared with many other English universities, but it had what I wanted. If rankings were my criteria, then I would have gone to the higher-placed Leeds (my mistake, Leeds is lower than Notingham, so let's replace it with Manchester or Sheffield or Durham. My point remains the same - I would still have chosen Nottingham regardless of ranking) and enjoyed the kind of winter that would make brass monkeys nervous.
My alma mater for my doctorate is not even on the rankings list that I looked at. Yet, the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies was without a doubt the place to be when doing a thesis exploring Malaysian law in the international context. Plus my supervisor was an expert on the subject matter.
In short, rankings had nothing to do with my decision making. Neither does it have to do with any of my advice to young people looking for a university.
For instance, if a school leaver asks me about which Malaysian university they should apply to for law, my advice would be based on the overall leanings of a particular university. This one is more liberal than the others, that one is very conservative, and so on and so forth.
The ultimate decision of course lies in the individual and what he or she is seeking in their legal education.
But here lies the crux of the matter. When it comes to undergraduate candidates, for those who have a choice, I will always say, go abroad if you can. Why is that? Let me explain.
The real key to a good undergraduate university education in my mind is not whether their lecturers are regularly publishing in ISI journals. It is whether they are teaching the subjects you want and teaching it well. And even then, what goes on in the classroom is only a small part of the equation. The kind of experiences you have outside the lecture halls are more important.
Will you be able to experience the freedom to explore all sorts of views and thoughts away from your comfort zone? Will you enjoy self-governance and independence? Will you be able to take part in cultural experiences unhindered by the value systems of some higher authority? Will you be able to express yourself without any fear?
These are the questions I would be asking because more than just the studying of a subject, it is the overall experience that an undergraduate has that will shape him or her, making their university experience more whole and ultimately making them more employable.
Treat your students like schoolchildren and you will get schoolchildren graduates. Let them be adults with all the responsibilities and you will get mature graduates.
At this time, and I don’t see things changing in the near future, Malaysian universities fall short where the undergraduate experience is concerned. Am I being unpatriotic? If I am, than that is akin to saying the statement “Malaysia does not provide good skiing holidays” as being unpatriotic.
Just as we have no snow, neither do we have, in our current situation, universities that will be a truly enriching experience for the school leaver. And that has absolutely nothing to do with rankings.
(The last paragraph was part of the full article that I submitted. Don't know why The Star changed it to something that was the same with what I said, but so much duller!)