For anxious parents who are about to subsidise their children’s higher education, the choice of university matters: what school to attend and what subjects to study are the key decision parameters.

In the absence of objective information, such decisions are often made on anecdotal evidence.

Any advice on the quality of education would help parents and students select the right program at the right university. In Pakistan though, such comparative and objective information does not exist.

The Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission (HEC) tries to fill this void by releasing its annual university rankings. In an earlier blog, I have explained why the apparent conflicts of interest should dissuade HEC from ranking the same schools it funds and supports. I also pointed out the limitations of their ranking metrics.

The HEC though is not easily dissuaded and has just released its new rankings using the same questionable metrics. Furthermore, HEC relied on outdated information.

Take a look: Your guide to pursuing a PhD in Pakistan

The rankings released in 2016 use research output information from 2014. Furthermore, the quality of education is measured from an administrator’s point of view rather than that of the students. In fact, student input is not even part of the ranking exercise.

To many, investing in children’s education is effectively no different from investing in the stock market. In both instances, one expects to strive for the highest return on investment.

Higher education costs in Pakistan's private sector institutions are prohibitively expensive for most middle-income families. The decision to send one or more children to universities necessarily becomes an exercise in (scarce) resource allocation.

It is, therefore, important for parents, and even more important for the students, to know what universities and programs to consider.

Why should parents think differently from HEC?

The HEC and the parents have markedly different concerns about the quality of education.

Where parents and students are concerned with the outcome of education, the HEC is interested in the inputs.

The primary stakeholders in higher education are the students who are concerned about their employment prospects.

Will they be able to get a job, will the job pay a decent wage, and will the education lead to a stable career, are the some of their ultimate concerns.

The HEC is not concerned with such trivia; it is preoccupied with other metrics. It measures, among others, the Internet bandwidth utilisation, and doctoral degrees awarded.

Both metrics are flawed for ranking purposes.

One can maximise the Internet bandwidth utilisation by downloading movies or songs. However, since the HEC measures quantity and not quality, it would not know if Internet bandwidth was utilised for a productive or a non-productive purpose.

The same goes for doctoral degrees. Measuring the number of degrees awarded, and not the intellectual worth of the contribution, results in the same limitation, i.e. measuring quantity and ignoring quality.

What makes good rankings?

The university rankings should primarily be for the benefit of those applying to the undergraduate programs. It does not matter to applicants and their parents how strictly a school conforms to HEC dictates, which accounts for 15 per cent of a university’s overall ranking by the HEC.

Graduate students pursuing masters or doctoral degrees should not need rankings to determine what research they will pursue and under whose supervision. Those applying to undergraduate programs are largely unfamiliar with the higher education terrain and hence need some guidance.

Also read: Misjudging universities

The following information, though missing from HEC’s criteria, will be of interest to applicants.

Employment prospects

Candidates should know in advance what percentage of the graduating class was employed full time six months after graduation in a field related to their education.

This metric is indicative of education relevance and employability. Universities seldom pay attention to the employment prospects of their graduating class. However, once the universities are ranked for employability of their graduates, the pedagogy and relevance of their curriculum will improve accordingly.

Starting salary

Independently conducted surveys of alumni about their salaries and careers will reveal how the labour market values the quality of the graduates.

Even more significant is the survey about post-graduation starting salaries. This is a critical factor in the ranking of top business schools in the world. The starting salaries are indicative of what the market is willing to pay for a green employee based on the perceived quality of the institution they attended.

Tuition and other expenses

Higher education is expensive for two reasons: one is the opportunity cost of not being in the labour market. Second is the out-of-pocket cost of higher learning that includes tuition and other ancillary expenses.

The total costs (including living expenses in university residences) should be an important factor in deciding about a school. This criterion is more relevant to private sector institutions that are not subsidised by public funds.

Student experience survey

Students are the primary stakeholders in higher education. Most university rankings in the West interview thousands of students about their learning experience.

They use students input to develop metrics for instructor quality, adequacy of academic resources, social and learning environment and the education’s value for money.

The HEC is not bothered with what the students have to say about the education they receive.

This presents an excellent opportunity to the private sector to design university rankings and produce special editions for their readership.

University rankings are quite a profitable business for several news outlets in Canada and the US — the same model can be replicated in Pakistan.

Rankings are not without bias, our inherent prejudices usually influence our measurements. The HEC’s rankings are biased, as are others. What complicates matters further is that the HEC is also the funding agency. Its rankings could have a bearing on how it funds universities.

If the HEC's rankings do not influence its funding decisions, why should these rankings matter to others?