Good news for Malaysian private universities — Geoffrey Williams and Nur Muhammad Tajrid

NOVEMBER 26 — It's been a tough time for private universities inMalaysia but the newly announced Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings: Asia 2021 results have come as a welcome relief with many silver linings worthy of well-deserved acknowledgement.

Overall 16 out of 35 Malaysian universities in the QS Asia 2021 Rankings are from the private sector. Three private universities are in the top 10 in Malaysia and eight private universities are in the top-200 in Asia beating many of our public universities.

Malaysia’s top-ranked private universities are Universiti Teknologi Petronas (ranked 70th), Taylor’s University (89th) and UCSI University (105th) all of whom have shown consistent effort over many years and have out-performed many public universities each time.

A core group of 29 established QS ranked universities is joined by a new group of six first-time entrants some of whom can show top-class performance off-the-bat. For example, HELP University, which is a new entrant for this year, has been ranked No. 1 in Asia for Outbound Student exchange programmes involving hundreds of HELP students who study with international partners around the world. This reflects many years of established internationalisation programmes for the university.

The Malaysian University of Science and Technology (MUST), a small young, specialist, not-for-profit university has ranked No. 1 in Asia for International Students under the stewardship of its President Professor Premkumar Rajagopal.

More than 40 per cent of its student body come from overseas. MUST also ranked in the top 50 for international faculty with around 20 per cent of its academic staff coming from overseas.

Other Malaysian universities ranked No. 1 in six categories covering Staff with PhD, International Research Network, International Faculty, International Students, Inbound Exchange Students and Outbound Exchange Students.

From our own experience of working with the QS rankings and ratings process there are a number of key factors in this success. First, a good performance does not come by chance, it needs a clear strategy, with effective leadership and management.

Second, the strategy must be integrated throughout the university and communicated to all stakeholders so that everyone knows what is required and why. You cannot perform well on the internationalisation criteria if you fire foreign staff or treat foreign students disrespectfully for example.

Third, it is important to collect the right type of data to measure and monitor your performance in real-time and to use drill-down analytics as part of your strategy development and implementation. Far too often universities are asked for information for ratings and rankings and find that their data records just don’t have it. This is a schoolboy error and easy to rectify with good systems.

Another key element in the QS rankings is the importance of building strong stakeholder relationships. Half of the score depends on the Academic Reputation (30 per cent) and Employer Reputation surveys (20 per cent) which help to understand how the university is perceived by academics at other institutions and how the university and its graduates are perceived by current and potential employers.

Internationalisation also plays an essential role in successful universities and scores highly across multiple QS rankings categories including the international student ratio, international faculty international academic networks and research collaboration and international exchange programmes for both inbound and outbound students. Together these indicators account for 20 per cent of the overall score.

Private universities often perform very well in these categories because many have a long history of internationalisation through joint degree programmes. It is important to build on this to create deeper relationships in research and exchange programmes for students and faculty as the internationalisation programmes mature.

Finally in terms of the indicators it is clear that Malaysian private universities cannot hope to get into the higher echelons without a focus on research and research collaborations. This accounts for 15 per cent of the score but also impacts the academic reputation score and the international networks score.

There is of course a debate about the usefulness of rankings and ratings in higher education and whether they reflect actual performance or gamesmanship on behalf of the participants. These arguments are well understood and must be taken into account when evaluating the outcomes but they do not negate the whole process.

The QS rankings are different to others and in many respects they are fairer. In other respects they have their limitations, for example the rankings do not evaluate teaching performance or student employability.

Nonetheless these indicators can be gauged by the QS Stars rating and for example, both HELP University and MUST are rated 5 Stars in these categories. Three private universities, Taylors, Sunway and HELP are rated 5 Stars overall which benchmarks them with the top universities in the world.

So it is important to use the rankings as part of a wider set of indicators including rankings by other international organisations, as well as the local SETARA and MyRA ratings from the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE).

When viewed in this light and also looking at improved performance over time the rankings do give extra information that is useful for stakeholders to judge the performance of institutions.

QS are also aware of these issues and work actively with stakeholders to improve their system. Our experience of working with QS for their rankings and ratings is very good. They have an excellent team headed by E. Way Chong, regional director (South-east Asia) for the QS Intelligence Unit and his colleagues Samuel Wong a senior researcher in the rankings data-room and Shiloh Rose Product Manager for the QS Stars Rating.

It is clear that they are engaging very closely with Malaysian universities in both the public and private sectors and this collaboration is now bearing fruit that will highlight Malaysian universities around the world.

* Professor Geoffrey Williams and Nur Muhammad Tajrid Zahalan are directors of Williams Business Consultancy Sdn Bhd based in Kuala Lumpur.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer(s) or organisation(s) and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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