During the third week of February, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) announced university rankings for the country. It provided standings of various public and private institutions from the public and private sector. HEC’s move has been met with mixed responses. Several stakeholders including the students and their parents, university faculty members and the general public want to understand the background, process, level of objectivity and transparency of the approach adopted in reaching the outcomes. It is important to consider many issues in this respect.

As observed in many parts of the world, ranking is employed as a tool to provide the performance measure of an institution on a comparative scale. It is conventionally aimed to inform the stakeholders (and society at large) about the status of various institutions; the specific reasons behind their relatively better or worse performances; potential case studies for replication based on success stories and a support instrument for the respective stakeholders to re-allign their goals and strategies.

Universities and degree-awarding institutions, being the prime knowledge dissemination mechanisms, benefit greatly from such exercises.

However, looking at the past performances of Pakistani universities and the endemic conditions that are all vital to be considered, a careful approach for ranking must be worked out.

In contrast to universities in the developed countries, students’ decision to join an institution is influenced by very different considerations. Academic merit or performance does not necessarily help in the making of such choices.

Public sector universities open admissions to residents of the same division/district or assigned locational parameters. It is next to impossible for an aspirant from Multan to study in the University of Peshawar or vice versa. Well aware about the captive clientele, some of these universities do not attempt to enhance their academic potential. The employability which is confined to some disciplines is also a very important consideration.

Such disciplines which are in demand are chosen, even if the quality of instruction or research is not up to the mark. It is for this reason that many well performing departments in social sciences and humanities are not able to attract bright students. On the contrary, computer and information technology or telecommunications related departments are flocked by hundreds —certainly not always due to the overall teaching quality in those places. This factor becomes a prominent characteristic in labelling a “good” and “not so good” academic outfit. For instance, a department teaching a local language and literature is looked down upon, irrespective of its teaching and research capabilities.

Quality of teaching is one of the most important factors that have a bearing on university performance. A campus which attracts capable and competent teachers truly adds value to the quality of graduates that serve the society in various capacities.

However, measuring and scaling teaching quality is an uphill task and can only be performed by specialist social scientists or related experts. How was teaching quality measured and incorporated in the HEC announced rankings is a question that needs a scientific answer.

Significant importance is laid on self-assessment in ranking exercises. However, the criteria of self assessment needs to be thought about carefully. In a culture where boasting  non-accomplished feats is a common practice, it is possible that such exercises may not generate the expected results. Some form of peer review with properly laid down parameters is an important pre-requisite. This review must remain objective, neutral and task-oriented—an uphill task indeed. The only possibility to make it happen is to initially detach the determination of ranking status from various administrative decisions. The exercise should constitute a process that leads to avenues of improvement in a pro-active and constructive manner.

Rankings must be done by an independent body. HEC, in consultation with concerned stakeholders, may consider such a body to conduct their future ranking exercises. The purpose and objectives of such an attempt must be clearly laid down. After internal review, these outlines may be firmed up and finalised through intellectual consensus and stakeholder consultation. The determination of ranking must comprise teaching, research, publications academic services and interface with industry/market/society.

The statutes governing the routine functioning of each university/institution possess a well-formed set of laws. The prescriptions for performance determination are clearly laid down in them. Every university may be encouraged to come up with a self assessment report covering these aspects. External support for detailed review and analysis may be sought whenever required. However, the aim of external input must be largely kept as proactive to help the concerned university/institution to take steps for improvement.

It may be pragmatically hoped that the said rankings may be used as  baseline study in order to review conditions and performances. This shall help identify the common problems of universities as well as specific problems as observed in individual cases. This strategy can evolve a support criteria for the universities whereafter they can become worthy for any internal or external assessment. n

The writer is professor and chairman, Department of Architecture and Planning, NED University, Karachi