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KACAMATA KU: The Politics Of Ranking, Why IIUM Stands Apart !

By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

Last week, IIUM became the talk of the town when it was “ranked” second in the listing of the World’s Islamic Universities by one UniRank University Ranking. This is not the first time that IIUM has been accorded such a position.

The reaction which is by and large positive, is not unexpected. Just as it was previously. However, the reluctance to jump on the bandwagon still holds due to many facets and reasons.

After all, the ranking exercise is not as easily understood as it seems. It is closely linked to the issues of methodology in alignment to the ranking rules of thumb, which is inconsistent depending on the understanding of what a “university” is all about.

Coincidentally, before this ranking was announced, another “secular” type of ranking for ASEAN universities was made known. It involved the regular commercially driven vendor that has been the subject of several criticisms over its (conflicting) methodology in recent times, especially in Asia.

This time it claimed that eight Malaysian universities (five of which are public, number 3 to 7) made the top 15 ASEAN institutions usually as research-based outfits. The other three are private (largely teaching universities) at numbers 11, 13 and 14. The top two are from Singapore, one from Thailand (number 9), and the rest, from Indonesia.

Not surprisingly, IIUM is not listed in this regional (secular) league table!

The obvious question is, of course, how come it came second in a “world” list as depicted by the UniRank? Similarly, the two Indonesian universities placed at number 4 and 9. While the rest are from West Asia, and Turkey mostly.

It turns out as suspected, the methodology and thus aims between the two ranking exercises are significantly different. To quote the UniRank, it is: to provide a non-academic league table based on unbiased and non-influenceable web metrics using independent sources.

Rather than the data provided by the universities themselves, as the case usually, namely the secular one referred to.

As a matter of fact, the submission of data is often opaque and subjected to controversy as mentioned earlier.

It is also linked to a substantial amount of money or “sponsorship” in terms of packages offered to prospective universities.

The writer is familiar with a private university paying over a million ringgit to participate in the ranking exercise. The financial figure almost doubled for the same purpose in the following year.

Allegedly, some paid a higher amount with other “perks” attached. Such examples show how the information is extracted and opened to manipulation. Hence, the stark differences as rendered in the two cases cited. They are not comparable. The uniRank, in this regard, admitted its limitations when it comes to appraising and ranking higher education institutions in countries with limited internet access and penetration rates.

It does not claim – by any means – to rank higher education organisations or their programmes, by the quality of education or level of academic services provided.

Being not an academic ranking, therefore, it should not be adopted as the main criteria for selecting a higher education organisation where to enrol and study.

It is, as suggested, less stringent than for academic university rankings.

Still, there are others, that are directed to universities with a special interest in major global (educational) agendas as determined by the United Nations (UN) for example. They often offer prestigious programmes that are linked directly to a more holistic form of education beyond conventional classroom or laboratory-based activities.

For instance, it may focus on community empowerment or engagement turning education into a real-world experiential form of learning. Education for Sustainable Development is well adopted as part of the Agenda 2030 concerning the Sustainable Development Goals.

On that note, IIUM is better tuned to the UN Environmental Programme version of appraisal such as the International Green Gown Awards supported by major academic partners globally,  recognised for its exceptional sustainability initiatives undertaken by universities and colleges across the world.

Since 2004, it has taken centre-stage in advocating a more broad-based whole-approach holistic appraisal system under various categories. Universities need to submit detailed evidence-based achievements with impactful outcomes on the community for evaluation and assessment.

In 2020, for instance, IIUM was pronounced as the winner of the Sustainability Institution of the Year; the first for Malaysia, and Asia. And in 2023 was winner in the Benefiting Society category projecting Trash to Treasure achievements in sustainable ways.

In 2024, IIUM has thus far been accorded 13 finalists (out of 95 worldwide) in five categories, representing cross-cutting outcomes derived from a holistic education ranging from climate crisis to student engagement, and diversity, equity and inclusion (click https://www.greengownawards.org/our-2024-international-finalists).

It is a very unique profiling of what universities ought to be in the real world, not based on the ranking!

The finalists will be subjected to further scrutiny before the overall winners are expected in October. A very rigorous and intense process.

IIUM being almost the sole representation from Malaysia takes pride as a university that stands out uniquely away from the conventional ranking while leading the way for a more sustainable future. – BACALAHMALAYSIA.MY

  • The writer is the Rector, the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM)

BacalahMalaysia Team

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