By Mathew Maavak
Newsweek recently published a list of the top 100 universities around the world. Except for the carefully calibrated, awfully boring and de rigueur top eight entries; the list makes one wonder whether there are elephants missing from this stampede of ivory tower heavyweights.
It was the kind of roll-call that pops the eyes out of a self-declared savant. Bizarrely, no Korean university made it to the list. From the law of cause and effect, one would expect some of the world's firsts -- which the Samsungs, Hyundais and LGs boast about -- to originate from a local university.
There are enough breakthroughs announced by a local Yonhap News brief to guarantee two or three Tech Analysis slots per week in The Korea Herald.
So, what's missing? Local researchers are generally eager to discuss their technical prowess, shrewd enough to withhold vital information, and are gaining the maturity to avoid publicity overkill. Or at least they are on a promising learning curve.
Maybe, they lack translational qualities that are so important to the world of academic networking and recognition.
However, this doesn't explain the omission of the English-savvy Indian Institutes of Technologies. Or for that matter, Israel's famed Weizmann Institute of Science.
If these can be omitted, even a well-executed publicity blitz by local institutions wouldn't help much. A Newsweek poll for online readers, placed besides the list, managed to throw up more questions.
The polls elicited clicks to this question: "Which country will have the best engineers in 10 years?" India came top with 33 percent of the vote, ahead of the United States with 23 percent. Hi-tech Japan was not featured.
If readers have high regards for Indian engineers, the global reference guides of the academia certainly do not have the same level of deference for the institutions which produce them. This could be a rare occasion when online polls are closer to the truth, backed by previous gushing in the U.S. media -- including Newsweek -- over the technical prowess of Indian scientists.
Newsweek evaluated the schools based on "measures used in well-known rankings published by Shanghai Jiaotong University and the Times of London Higher Education Survey."
Another criteria used were "the number of highly-cited researchers in various academic fields, the number of articles published in Nature and Science, and the number of articles listed in the ISI Social Sciences and Arts & Humanities indices."
In 2003, Korean researchers in fact published 18,787 papers in international science magazines registered with the "Science Citation Index" compared to 5,379 in 1995.
This constitutes a steep learning curve, but rankers from the Times and Shanghai Jiaotong presumably found them wanting.
It was the other criteria used that threw up a clue to how the rankings were weighted. It read "the percentage of international faculty, percentage of international students," and the "ratio of faculty to students."
It seems diversity in intakes can magically boost the quality of an institution. This is a highly arguable proposition, unless all admissions were based on merit, and funding was available to the budget-challenged meritorious. Not really possible. Or at least, not a reality in the business of education.
Social diversity in places like Malaysia may in fact end up producing classrooms, which, according to Asia Times writer Ioannis Gatsiounis, often "punishes rather than rewards creative thinking." Local politicians and Western beacons of public diplomacy too have vested interests in keeping the foreign intellectual domain restrained.
Public diplomacy is practiced by various national institutions to boost goodwill abroad. Student grants are thus an integral part of bilateral diplomacy.
In other words, the selection criteria are dictated by bilateral trade interests. Merit takes second stage. Democratic credentials may end up taking the very last seat.
Though the Americans can be viewed as an exception, the British Council and its fellow European counterparts are particularly notorious in their selection criteria.
In China, only communist party vetted students (civil servants) are given scholarships and grants like the Chevening. There is no room here for Tiananmen patriots. When you hear "freedom" from No. 10, Downing Street, do take a deep breath, pause, and ponder what that word means.
It just might mean free trade.
The recipient regimes of scholastic public diplomacy will not tolerate intelligent discourses while they carp endlessly on neo-colonialism. Better students might take the notion of "freedom" too seriously.
Here is an example:
In 1994, the British press began to expose graft involved in an arms-linked deal in Malaysia. Naturally, it roused the indignation of then Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. British firms were swiftly brought to their knees; some were reduced to groveling with full page ads on Malaysian dailies. British universities began to fret over a possible drop in the largesse that came with government-funded Malaysian students who contributed significantly to the overall campus populations then.
It was back to status quo ante, and till today, despite the thousands of Malaysians who had studied abroad, there remains a dearth of local talent which can only be filled by foreigners, among whom include a sizeable number of Britons.
This must be the real neo-colonialism.
When one realizes the role played by public diplomacy, university admissions criteria and the funding granted, education emerges as nothing more than a component of trade, and an instrument of domestic tyranny.
Shoplot colleges, 'foreign campuses'
The windfall generated through foreign students, foreign campuses and governments, are a mega-billion dollar industry. Take a stroll through Kuala Lumpur and Beijing and you might chance upon shoplot colleges displaying the crest of established universities, some of whom are on Newsweek's list.
Are Koreans still sulking over the omission of their vaunted institutes? They should ask how their institutes could lag far behind the National University of Singapore (36) and the Nanyang Technological University (71).
Even Singaporean politicians regularly bemoan the lack of originality among local students. This shortfall is made up by an ever-growing rank of expat professors and foreign students who fill that creativity gap.
How did Nanyang Technological University, known to dispense diplomas when it was established in 1981, get ranked ahead of the University of Vienna (founded 1365) and the University of Sheffield (1828)? Vienna was producing historical figures even before Sigmund Freud was conceived.
Have you heard of a native soccer player, engineer, writer or musician who had passed through the portals of both Singaporean institutions to attain global fame?
Maybe it is a matter of shrewd marketing strategies. Singapore, after all, has a world-class service industry.
On the other hand, tiny, cash-crunched and conflict-prone Israel has produced some of the most outstanding intellectuals over the decades. Why? It has a fiercely independent intellectual sphere.
Foreign ideas and degrees are to be used and improvised in a dynamic pursuit of knowledge. Otherwise, that vaunted cert becomes a static, elitist showpiece.
But much education has now been reduced to just that. It is a tool of business, politics, skewed publicity and rankings.
The original version of this article was published in the Korea Herald on Aug 23, 2006
Most of Mathew Maavak's commentaries can be read here or visit the Panoptic World homepage.