The relationship between Malaysian universities and international rankers would make a good soap opera, full of break-ups, reconciliations and recriminations.
It started in 2004 when the first THES - QS ranking put Universiti Malaya (UM) in the top 100 and Universiti Sains Malaysia in the top 200. There was jubilation at the UM campus with triumphant banners all over the place. Then it all came crashing down in 2005 when QS revealed that they had made a mistake by counting ethnic minorities as international students and faculty. There followed a "clarification of data" and UM was expelled from the top 100.
The Malaysian opposition believed, or pretended to believe, that this was evidence of the unrelenting decline of the country's universities. The Vice-Chancellor of UM went off into the academic wilderness but still remained on QS's advisory board.
UM continued to pursue the holy grail of a top 200 ranking by the vigorous pursuit of publications and citations. There was discontent among the faculty voiced in a letter to a local newspaper:
"The writer claimed that many have left UM and “many more are planning to leave, simply because of the expectations from the management”.
“UM is not what it used to be. The academic staff are highly demoralised and unhappy due to the management’s obsession and fixation with ISI publications, while research, consultancy, and contribution to the nation, such as training of PhD students are considered as secondary,” the letter said."
In 2007 the Malaysian government asked for plans from universities to be considered for APEX (Accelerated Program for Academic Excellence) status which would include a substantial degree of university autonomy. It boiled down to a fight between UM and USM, which was won by USM apparently because of its inspiring plans.
'"The selection committee evaluated each university's state of readiness, transformation plan and preparedness for change. The university that is granted apex status is theone that has the highest potential among Malaysian universities to be world-class, and as such, would be given additional assistance to compete with top-ranking global institutions,‘addedKhaled. "Apex is about accelerated change. It is not about business as usual –but business unusual""USM has been working on its own transformation plan –We started with the ‘Healthy Campus’concept, before moving on to the‘University in a garden’concept. We subsequently adopted the ‘Research University’concept."Tan Sri DatoProf DzulkifliAbdul RazakVice Chancellor, USMSelection Committee Chairman, Dr. MohamadZawawi, former Vice Chancellor of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak said the committee also paid special attention to the institutions’strategic intent and transformation plans. Visits were made to short-listed institutions where discussions were held with senior staff, academicians, students and staff associations to understand the prevailing campus’‘climate’and factors related to the proposed plans.With apex status, USM will be given the autonomy to have the best in terms of governance, resources and talent and is expected to move up in the World University Rankings with a target of top 200 in five years and in the top 100, if not 50, by 2020.'
Note that USM was expected to use its status to climb the international rankings. However, it is now refusing to have anything to do with the rankings, something that is understandable.
The issue of which university deserves APEX was reopened this morning when it was announced that Universiti Malaya was in the top 500 of the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities.
This is unlikely to be a mistake like 2004. The Shanghai rankers have had methodological problems like what to do about merging or splitting universities but they do not change the basic methodology and they do not make serious mistakes. We are not going to hear next year about a clarification of data
UM's success is narrowly based. They have no Nobel prize winners, no highly cited researchers , only a handful of papers in Nature and Science but quite a lot of publications in ISI indexed journals. One might complain that there is too much emphasis on quantity but this is nevertheless a tangible achievement.