Friday, October 24, 2008

In pursuit of excellence

In the 2008 list of 500 ranked universities in the world by the Times Higher Education Supplement in association with Quacquarelli Symonds (THES – QS World University Rankings), the University of the Philippines (U.P.) has been outranked by Ateneo de Manila for the first time in years. U.P. placed 276th to Ateneo’s 254.

The THES-QS ranking has been criticized for the subjective nature of its assessment criteria, which are largely based on a peer review of over 3,000 scholars and academics in various fields of study.

According to high-ranking U.P. officials, the University did not participate in the 2008 THES-QS rankings, thus they have no information on how the data were obtained on which the ranking was based. When it participated in 2006, THES-QS ranked U.P. 299th as against Ateneo at 500.

In addition to THES-QS, there are also other world-wide rankings such as the Academic Ranking of World Universities compiled by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, the Top 100 Global Universities by Newsweek, the Webometrics Ranking of World Universities, and the Professional Ranking of World Universities by the Ecole nationale superieure des mines de Paris.

These world rankings serve as a guide to universities around the world which truly excel. While they may be useful, their utility does not extend beyond making comparisons. They are not supposed to be the yardstick by which every university must measure its excellence, or whether a country’s education program serves the needs of its student population.

To some degree, however, university rankings, according to the Center for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS), Leiden University, may have “strong de-equalizing effects. They directly confront scientists, university board members, policy makers, politicians, journalists, and the interested man-in-the-street with inequality. Rankings strengthen the idea of an academic elite, and institutions use the outcomes of rankings, no matter how large the methodological problems are, in their rivalry with other institutions.”

Let’s take for example the kind of bragging rights the current THES-QS rankings may generate between U.P. and Ateneo. The University of the Philippines is considered the premier institution of higher learning in the Philippines, and has educated some of the country's most popular political and social leaders, economists, scientists, lawyers, medical doctors, engineers, creative artists, educators, and entrepreneurs.

On the issue of reputation alone, any U.P. graduate can make the argument that U.P. has the significant edge since it has produced more presidents of the Republic, more chief justices of the Supreme Court, more members of Congress, 36 out of the 57 National Artists, and 30 out of the 31 National Scientists. U.P.’s historical tradition of excellence is a strong asset in evaluating its current reputation.

But a university does not live on past reputation alone. One has to consider its current performance. Thus, when Antonio Meloto’s fame and reputation soared on account of Gawad Kalinga’s success, it also uplifted Ateneo’s status. When Filipino leaders are being measured based on Meloto’s selflessness, sincerity and compassion for the needy, no current leader has emerged from U.P. who can equal Meloto’s reputation. And if Ateneo keeps on producing more Melotos from its ranks of graduates, U.P.’s historical tradition of excellence is in jeopardy. This probably could explain the slip in U.P.’s ranking among the world’s best.

There is nothing wrong in pushing our universities to excel. We need to enhance the best in order to achieve the highest quality in science, engineering, law, public administration, medicine and the arts. But this should not be done at the expense of social equality, by creaming off only the outstanding minds and devoting the best intellectual training possible to the brightest of our children.

The educational system must have an obligation to those left behind, to children who do not qualify to go through the rigorous discipline of higher education. Excellence should not be the only goal of a meritocratic system of education.

In reality, merit is not enough; money and influence have become additional requirements to gain entry in the best schools, as money and influence are likewise the most common determinants of social advancement in our present-day society. Our current education system has become a tool for the rich and well connected, which U.P. and Ateneo, quite sadly, both produce in more numbers than ever.

While Ateneo has always been a school for the elite, those who have money and influence, U.P. today is almost like Ateneo, except that it is still publicly funded being a state university. The U.P. College Admissions Test (UPCAT), considered the most competitive college entrance examination in the country, also diminishes the chances of children educated in public schools to qualify.

Considering the state of funding for public schools in the Philippines today, with their meagre resources and very low salaries for teachers, it is not surprising that they are producing less and less students who can compete with those trained in private institutions. This discrepancy between public and private education is no more apparent than in the results of the entrance examinations of these universities. Those trained in private schools find it easier to gain entry to U.P. or Ateneo, while more than majority of the school population has to be satisfied with the alternative of mediocrity.

These findings make it more clear why the pursuit of excellence in education has to start early, from the time a child is ready to start reading, writing and solving problems. In China, children start learning at an early age, with special schools for the brightest children. The French system of superior universities, hautes ecoles, subjects students to rigorous and competitive entrance examinations, thus children’s intellectual training also starts early.

Every society needs to pursue excellence in education not in terms of reducing its people and their achievements to a common measurement, but in raising them as close as possible to an ideal level. The goal of education must be to uplift the human potential of the general masses, prepare them for work and for a better life, and at the same time, raise the intellectual promise of the gifted to realize their full potential.

Before any of these goals could be addressed, however, both public and private sectors must first establish the groundwork for an education system that grants access to learning to everyone, not on a favoured few.

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