The quest for equity in Thai university rankings

The quest for equity in Thai university rankings

In his recent article, "Rankings not be-all, end-all for Thai unis", Mike Hayes astutely addressed the problems in the international university ranking systems vis-à-vis Thai universities, and there is little point in rehashing the faults he correctly brought to light. In his final paragraph, however, he offered an alternative ranking system that would incorporate official rankings but seems to be far more applicable to Thailand by incorporating Thai universities' contribution to local communities, national development and a democratic society.

Ranking systems are important in helping Thai students determine the most advantageous university for them to attend. Advantageous does not necessarily mean the highest-rated university, but one that will allow students to reach their greatest potential in their chosen field. The student's choice should be one that will benefit the people of Thailand, be something the student is fulfilled in doing, and not just be a result in terms of a quick rise up the social mobility ladder.

On this note, Alexander Cartwright, Chancellor of the University of Missouri, during his visit to Khon Kaen University explained the "Missouri Method" that was created in its top-ranked School of Journalism and percolating through many of the university's schools and colleges. It involves getting students out of classrooms and into the real world, where they can learn, interact with people, and contribute to society. Their grades are based on their contributions and on their impacts on those parts of society they are engaged with. Thus, the university is teaching social responsibility.

An emphasis on social responsibility would also fit well with the 16 Berlin Principles on Rankings of Higher Education Institutions, as issued in 2006 by the International Ranking Expert Group, founded in 2004 by Unesco. Using the Missouri Method, one field where we might see a dramatic impact is in the area of recent projects with other Asian countries, such as China. Thailand has opened the door to neo-colonialism by privileging engineers and other technical personnel from China rather than offering these positions to well-educated Thais. Conversely, a measurement of how many Thai graduates are being placed in positions in projects involving other countries, both in Thailand and in the country with which we are working, would show if we are succeeding in contributing home-grown "brain power" for the betterment of Thailand and the world.

These impacts would form measurements for a national Thai university ranking system, which exist in many other countries, such as the US and Canada, based on criteria established by an independent ranking body and designed to drill down into the performance of Thai universities. For example, the Council of University Presidents of Thailand could take up this issue. The criteria established would measure the performance of universities in the role of national and local socio-political and economic development, such as degree of business-academic cooperation. Measurements need to be made of such factors as the level of success of a university degree in creating equal opportunities to compete for available openings with the elite.

This will develop the ability to assess how well universities are functioning in freeing the people, in general, from ignorance due to political suppression of lack of freedom of expression. We need to rank higher education institutions in terms of critical and analytical thinking, ie, the ability to examine all sides of an issue.

A Thailand-specific rating system would facilitate a move away from the heavy emphasis on the hard sciences and add more weight to the humanities and social sciences. While scientific research and output would still remain very important to Thailand's future, it would be alongside research in the humanities and social sciences, which are not emphasised in most ranking systems.

The weight given to English-language publications puts Thai universities at a disadvantage. We should be looking at increasing the number of high-quality articles, including those in Thai, that are published by legitimate Thai peer-reviewed journals. Of course, the bar for the peer-review process will have to be raised significantly so that the papers that are published in the Thai journals contain content that could meet international standards, even though they are published in Thai. More quality articles being published will lead to greater recognition within the Thai research community. At some point, some of this Thai research will be cited in international journals publishing English-language articles.

This process will require a commitment by both academia and the government to implement it and keep it fair. After all, why would a Thai university that is already highly ranked want potential competition from a university that excels in a limited field but cannot compete at the overall level? Would a top-ranked Thai university join the review process as a way of benefiting the country instead of just being concerned about its own prestige? That may be a big hurdle. It will require buy-in by many university presidents, both public and private.

One development that needs to occur throughout the Thai education system is to avoid rote-learning, the fear of critical thinking, and regurgitating textbooks. We need students who are able to employ what they learn and build on it, using their own brains, for the good of Thailand and the world. A performance-based ranking system specifically focusing on universities in Thailand would give prospective students and the citizens of Thailand and the world a more in-depth indication of how Thailand's educational institutions are performing in terms of their social responsibilities. It might also allow some lower-tier universities, such as the Rajabhat universities, to shine.

These improvements will require fundamental changes in the higher education financial management procedures to allow greater influence over the allocation of institutional budgets. In the final analysis, our ranking measurements should show that we are succeeding in producing not just wage earners, but real innovators who can move Thailand forward. These processes are well underway in other Southeast Asian countries, such as Vietnam, and Thailand's higher education sector must act rapidly if there is to be a chance of catching them up.

Peerasit Kamnuansilpa is a founder and former dean of Khon Kaen University's College of Local Administration (Cola).

Peerasit Kamnuansilpa

Khon Kaen University Dean

Peerasit Kamnuansilpa is Dean, College of Local Administration Khon Kaen University.

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