The trouble with university rankings (2) | Inquirer Opinion
Second Opinion

The trouble with university rankings (2)

/ 05:13 AM June 23, 2023

Established in Oct. 19, 1898, the Universidad Literaria de Filipinas can be considered the country’s first state university, antedating University of the Philippines (UP) by 10 years. Despite its short life of just one academic year, the Universidad signaled the value that the revolutionaries placed in—to quote National Artist Resil Mojares—“an educational system that confirmed to their aspirations for an education that was secular, scientific, patriotic, and democratic.”

Surely, this university, like the First Philippine Republic that established it, had flaws in its inception. But it is insightful to invoke its memory when thinking about universities (and university rankings) today. Amid calls to “decolonize” and “indigenize” academia, we have to be reminded that while universities have served as colonial institutions, they have always held the potential to be both decolonial and indigenous.

Rankings, however, undermine this potential by imposing a “comparative paradigm” that—by virtue of our unequal histories—is already skewed against institutions in postcolonial states like the Philippines. A centuries-old Western institution—funded in part by the colonial project and now with corporate endowments—will enjoy a higher “academic reputation” than the institutions in countries that were colonized—and whose academic traditions and projects that they stifled; not just the Universidad Literaria de Filipinas but the entirely different ways of thinking. Already struggling with limited budgets, for these institutions to prioritize trying to get higher rankings is to divert resources from other important matters like the well-being of faculty and staff or extracurricular activities for students.

Indirectly, these rankings also force faculty to conform to these same standards, as when universities themselves prioritize research over teaching, high-impact international journals over well-read local ones, English language publications over Filipino and other languages, journals over books, more high-impact, “publishable” topics than neglected ones. Already overworked, teachers are placed under pressure to publish, causing unnecessary frictions among faculty, some of whom might harbor the thought that while they are all working hard, different kinds of work are valued differently.


Students, too, are affected. With their future careers in mind, their (and their parents’) reliance on rankings is understandable. But the downside is that they might also end up judging universities, others, as well as themselves, based on these rankings. Or they might get faculty that’s more interested in research than teaching. Overall, it is very possible that a university’s focus on rankings can diminish the quality of the education, and I wouldn’t be surprised if ranking-conscious universities engender grade-conscious students.

Of course, good research can be impressive and also relevant. One can collaborate with both international and local institutions. A-universities can be rated highly both in the rankings and by their own faculty, students, and staff. As University of Hong Kong’s Vivian Lin reminds me, the rankings themselves are evolving; Times Higher Education now has an “Impact Rankings” based on the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. Upon checking this particular ranking, I was pleasantly surprised to see more Philippine universities in the top 1,000: Batangas State University, Leyte Normal University, Mariano Marcos State University, University of Santo Tomas, Tarlac Agricultural University were all ranked 601-800.

For governments, these rankings might also serve as a wake-up call to give more support to state universities—all of which need support, especially with the advent of Republic Act No. 10931. Even UP is always at risk of being underfunded by politicians—some of whom love to hate it—and its rankings performances can serve as a starting point to ask for more investment in education.

If nothing else, by serving as some kind of “external audit” to our “top universities,” these rankings can serve as a reminder to be humble, and to not rest on one’s laurels. If academic rankings can push institutions to do better—e.g., paying their faculty more, being more inclusive, supporting more researchers—then well and good.


To conclude, I want to stress that I do not blame universities themselves for feeling pressured to play the rankings game. “Like it or not,” as National University of Singapore’s Jeremy Lim tells me, “Donors, partner universities, etc. all pay attention to these rankings and so do prospective faculty and students.”

Even so, I hope none of our universities are forced to recreate themselves in the image of these external rankings, at the expense of the more important goals of building students, faculty, and the nation. University rankings should never be the end goal of any institution, nor the measure of its worth.



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TAGS: Second Opinion, university rankings

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