USP Ads Got It Wrong On More Than Ranking

It is of course not possible to compare the quality of universities who have submitted ranking applications to the THE with those universities that have chosen not to make such submissions.
11 Sep 2021 10:00
USP Ads Got It Wrong On More Than Ranking

Over the last week, universities around the world have been in a state of excitement with the release of the latest international universities ranking by the Times Higher Education (THE).

There are many university ranking systems but this one is seen by many, to be one of the most prestigious because it has a particular focus on research as well as factors such as internationalism and the support from industry.

Those universities that like to be ranked by these kinds of measures put a lot of time and effort into submissions; but not all universities in the world choose to subject themselves to this system.

Indeed, of the approximately 20,000 universities world-wide, only just over 2000 actually applied to be assessed.

It is of course not possible to compare the quality of universities who have submitted ranking applications to the THE with those universities that have chosen not to make such submissions.

The reason being that they are not being assessed using the same criteria.

Therefore, for example, one cannot make any claims about being in the top 10 per cent of university in the world when approximately 18,000 of the world’s universities have not been assessed on the criteria used in making that claim.

This year, for the first time, a Pacific university, USP, has been included and was ranked in a band of 1001 to 1200 out of 1662 universities that were eventually ranked on the THE criteria.


Former VC Professor Chandra

This is an admirable achievement and reflects the outcome of a strategy developed by former Vice Chancellor, Professor Rajesh Chandra. This focused on USP being recognized on the international stage as a quality university.

In a similar vein, during Chandra’s time in office, the University obtained a very prestigious international institutional accreditation from the Western Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC) in the United States, as well as securing 27 international programme accreditations and 15 recognitions for its programmes; meaning that for the first time USP students were able to receive professional and international accreditation of their qualifications.

The success of USP in now being recognised for its research achievements by the Times Higher Education Ranking is a marvelous outcome of Chandra’s investment and support for research and one that reflects the meeting of strict eligibility criteria in terms of publications, research income and other factors over the years from 2016 to 2020. It is a strategy that Professor Pal Ahluwalia continued to support when he came to USP in 2019 and the outcome of the ranking is something that EVERYONE at USP, including academics and professional staff, has contributed to and should now be celebrating.

Despite the outstanding success that has been achieved, somehow senior management at USP has managed to diminish the importance of this by making claims that are inaccurate. How did this happen?

It started when Professor Ahluwalia publicised that USP had been ranked in the top 10 per cent of universities in the world. This message appeared prominently on the University’s website and in its media releases.


Statement was inaccurate

The only problem was that the statement wasn’t accurate. USP was not ranked as being in the top 10 per cent of universities by the THE! This was made clear by none other than the Times Higher Education’s Chief Knowledge Officer, Phil Baty who is responsible for the Times rankings.

In an interview with ABC Australia, Baty responded to questions about the USP claims, by saying that “even the poorest statistician can probably work out that the university is not in the top 10 percent in the latest rankings, let alone in the world”. It was ranked somewhere in the bottom half of those universities appearing in the rankings.

The difference between the USP claim of being in the top 10 percent whilst it was in the lower 50 percent of those universities ranked by the THE was clearly too much for Baty. He acknowledged USP’s great achievement but as an international authority on university performance, he explained that it would be wrong to make claims based on a comparison with universities who had not applied to be included in the rankings and suggested that the sort of comparisons USP was making might run afoul of Advertising Standards authorities.

For example, if USP used inaccurate information about its ranking in its international student recruitment campaigns it would put the University at risk of legal challenge on the ground of false advertising. Mr Baty made this precise point when he discussed the experience of Australian universities that had in the past, misrepresented their ranking.

USP’s acting Deputy Vice Chancellor for Education, Professor Jito Vanualailai, was quick to criticise ABC Australia’s reporting of Mr Baty comments, arguing that “the ABC’s reporting that USP’s claim of being in the top 10 per cent is a cheap marketing gimmick” was unfair to the regional university.

However, neither Mr Baty nor the ABC had said anything about “cheap marketing gimmicks”.


Contextualising the claim

Mr Baty had actually said that USP should be careful about how it represented its ranking. It is hard to understand why the acting Deputy Vice Chancellor attacked the head of the Times Higher Ranking system for discrediting the University when Mr Baty was merely pointing out the truth.  USP is not in the top 10 per cent of universities worldwide and should accept this and be pleased with the great outcome achieved rather than misrepresenting the results.

However, not willing to concede the point, Professor Vanualailai went on to claim that USP was in the top 3-5 percent of universities in the world and that they had used the marketing slogan of 10 per cent as a conservative estimate of their world ranking.  Professor Vanualailai’s logic is very confusing.

If USP is really in the top 3-5 percent of universities internationally, why would he want to downplay that?


Misrepresenting evidence

But the reality is that it is neither in the top 3-5 per cent nor in the top 10 per cent. Misrepresenting evidence is a serious matter for academics.

The reputations of academics are based upon their integrity and truthfulness in reporting data. Yet, the acting Deputy Vice Chancellor insists on making claims that have no evidence to support them and have been challenged by the leading expert on this matter who oversees the entire ranking process for the THE.

The following question arises – Why is it that Professor Vanualailai is suddenly the voice of USP, making even more audacious and blatantly misleading claims than his boss, Professor Ahluwalia?  Where is Professor Ahluwalia?

It would seem reasonable to presume that Professor Ahluwalia was aware of the claims that his deputy was going to make. If not, then he needs to address the issue and correct the record.

This story of outstanding achievement by the USP community might well have turned into a public relations disaster for the University but at least Professor Ahluwalia can correct the misrepresentations that have been made.

The first order of business should be to immediately remove the false statements of being in the top ten percent in the world rankings from the university website. He might also want to address two other issues in the University’s reporting of the outcome.

USP in its full-page advertisement in the Fiji Times last Saturday, he chose to name a group of 14 current researchers at the University who have contributed to the ranking. It is hard to understand why any individual researchers were credited with this achievement given that so many other academic and professional staff over the last five years contributed to the result. However, what is most remarkable, is that this list of 14 individuals contains not a single woman.

Not even the world-renowned professor of climate change, Professor Elisabeth Holland, or Professor Konai Thaman, the first female USP professor of Pacific Studies and leading regional educator, seemed to have been worthy of inclusion in Professor Ahluwalia’s list.

Yet, the reality is that there are countless past and present female academics whose contribution to the University has been outstanding and who have played a major role in this success. More than a missed opportunity, the real question is why Professor Ahluwalia has so blatantly disregarded the work of female scholars and researchers.

Equally surprising is the failure to recognize any of the USP academics from the 11 member countries other than Fiji.

One of Professor Ahluwalia’s 14 stars subsequently relocated from Fiji to the Marshall Islands but was not there during the period covered by this assessment of USP’s research performance. The reality is that not a single researcher from Cook Islands, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Samoa nor Vanuatu has been recognized.

It is well known that there have always been many outstanding academics at USP from across all its member countries. Their work over the 5 years from 2016 to 2020 has certainly contributed to the Times ranking but these researchers have not been acknowledged in the University’s celebrations despite Professor Ahluwalia constantly arguing that USP is a university of the region, not of Fiji.

USP has misrepresented key facts about the University’s performance. In doing so has diminished what should have been a cause for celebration. Many staff and USP collaborators, both in the region and internationally, will recognize that, sadly, this is not merely a misdemeanor of marketing but reflects wider issues concerning the management of USP and the absence of accountability.



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