Javed Ashraf

Islamabad - The other day, my friend Pervez Hoodbhoy suggested that ranking of universities in Pakistan is an exercise devoid of any merit. I disagree. The Higher Education Commission releases its rankings on an annual basis. In addition to its “general universities” category, the HEC has separate rankings in areas such as business, agriculture, medicine, engineering, and arts/design. In so doing, the HEC mirrors a practice that is common abroad, and is followed with keen interest, not just by students and faculty, but by the public at large.

The most immediate and obvious benefit of such rankings is that they provide students with information on academic institutions with more objectivity than if those students were to simply go by perceptions of the quality of these universities. As an example, the Government College Lahore University (of which I am a proud graduate) fails in the rankings to attain the level that its perceived reputation would warrant. This is not an error.

As an educationist, I can only sadly testify to its academic decline over the years. On the other hand, Sukkur IBA (in no way connected to its more famous namesake in Karachi) is ranked among the top business schools in the country. As a visitor to that institution, I can personally vouch for the quality of its infrastructure, faculty, and other variables generally associated with academic strength.

In capturing, and making public information about the rise and fall in the quality of universities, the HEC provides a very useful service. In addition to being a guide for prospective students, the rankings play a role in helping academic institutions to improve themselves, and act as a wake-up call to those that have faltered in their missions.

This is not to say that rankings are perfect. But, in a play on Churchill’s famous utterance on democracy, rankings are the worst way of assessing university performance - except for all the alternatives.

There is little doubt that rankings have their flaws. Pervez Hoodbhoy for example, alleges that published faculty research is an important criterion in the rankings - but that such research is often trivial or of poor quality. This of and by itself should not be an indictment of the ratings system. It means simply that we must find better ways of assessing the quality of research. Pervez’s views amount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The rankings system devised by the HEC is based on a large number of variables. It is difficult to challenge the legitimacy of most of them. For example, who can quarrel with the HEC looking into the percentage of full-time faculty (as opposed to part-timers) at a university? Or the percentage of them that hold Ph.D.s? Or if their research publications find a place in high-quality journals?The HEC rankings-list goes on to include such factors as the number of national and international awards won by each university’s faculty, how competitive admissions are based on the percentage of applicants who are accepted for admission, and the number of external research grants won by a university’s faculty —just to name a few.

HEC’s ranking system was developed under the watchful eye of the redoubtable SohailNaqvi, then Executive Director of the HEC, and currently vice-chancellor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. Dr Naqvi was assisted in his task by a committee consisting of professors from some of the leading universities in the country.

These variables are reviewed annually, and appropriate modifications are made by the committee.The exercise is time-consuming, rigorous, and often contentious. As with all discussions, unanimity of views often does not prevail during the meetings.

But what emerges is the best one can hope for when top academics debate among themselves the appropriateness or otherwise of different indicators of university quality. I reiterate: rankings are not a perfect way of assessing the merit of academic institutions. But until a better system of doing so is put into place, they remain the best way of achieving that goal. In not seeing eye-to-eye with Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, I mean no disrespect to him. His is a fresh and liberal voice in a landscape where all too often rigidity and close-mindedness prevail. On the subject of rankings of universities, however, we choose to disagree.

The writer is Vice-Chancellor of

Quaid-i-Azam University