Intellectual apartheid and UP’s decline in international university rankings

The Oblation: Iconic symbol of the University of the Philippines —PHOTO FROM

In the latest report by the Times Higher Education-World University Rankings (THE-WUR) for 2023, the University of the Philippines declined from its 2022 bracket of 601-800 to the 801-1000. This resulted in UP losing its top position among Philippine universities and being overtaken by Ateneo de Manila University, which placed in the 351-400 bracket. 

The rankings, based on teaching, research, citations, international outlook and industry income, gave Ateneo an overall score of 45.0-46.9; UP’s score was 29.8-33.9.

More than one’s place in the rankings, however, is the more crucial question on the context and metrics under which the rankings are made. It is pertinent to note that more and more teaching staff in tertiary-level educational institutions are becoming critical of the various international university rankings.


Particularly problematic is the reliance of these rankings on Euro-America-centric metrics of “internationalization,” such as the number of publications in journals listed in the indices of monopolistic academic business entities like Elsevier-Scopus and the Clarivate-Web of Science. 

Some 38.5% of the THE-WUR total score depends on the number of publications of teaching staff in the journals indexed in Elsevier-Scopus. This is broken down into: 30% for citations from journals listed in Elsevier-Scopus, 6% for research productivity for publications in journals indexed by Elsevier-Scopus, and 2.5% for international collaboration counted for publications with at least one international co-author published in a journal indexed by Elsevier-Scopus. These, when added together, is the largest single percentage compared to all other criteria (Bothwell 2022).

In 2019 alone, Elsevier earned $3.3 billion in profits selling access to journal articles written at no cost to it by academics whose researches are, moreover, frequently supported by public funds (Scholarly Communications-MIT Libraries 2022). Elsevier has openly and actively supported anti-open access legislation and hopes to criminalize the free flow of information and knowledge in order to shore up its dodgy business model.

Studies have shown that journals from the United Kingdom, United States, and the Netherlands are consistently and strongly overrepresented in the Elsevier-Scopus database in all fields of study (Mongeon & Paul-Hus 2015). 

One may wonder: Why the Netherlands? Elsevier-Scopus is based there, a country only a tenth of the size of the Philippines. 

As expected, journals from high-producing countries like Russia, India, and China are also routinely and greatly underrepresented in their citation databases. In matters of language, English is consistently overrepresented while other important languages of intellectual production, such as Russian, Chinese, and Japanese, are massively underrepresented. 

The Social Sciences and Arts & Humanities have seemingly never been considered by the main citation databases as being of equal importance to the other disciplines. These latter have always been inadequately covered from the very beginning of academic citation up to the present. These same shortcomings are also evident in the Clarivate-Web of Science database.

Related: UP academic community in disquiet, laments ‘loss’ of democratic governance

Cause for apprehension 

Despite these well-known shortcomings, UP continues to participate in these rankings. The university still uses the metrics of international rankings as part of its institutional prioritization and planning. The UP administration was prompted by its decline in ranking to issue a statement saying: “UP is currently reviewing the indicators and data from the THE’s latest WUR to gain insights for the University’s future measures and directions. This latest ranking of UP’s standing among universities worldwide will serve as valuable insight in determining UP’s way forward in its mission to serve the nation, through the delivery of the highest level of education to our youth.” 

There is some cause for apprehension. The UP administration may seek to implement policies designed to significantly increase UP’s score in Elsevier-Scopus’ monopolistic game in order to once again secure the top spot. This can mean providing larger incentives for publishing and obtaining higher citation numbers in the “high-impact journals” covered by Elsevier-Scopus and Clarivate-Web of Science indices. 

Funds are thus needlessly rechanneled to benefit a small academic elite at the expense of the welfare of the academic community as a whole. 

Teaching staff from all disciplines may eventually be compelled to publish in these journals (and write in English) in order to obtain awards, recognition, grants, promotion or tenure. The publication of articles in journals which are published in the Philippines or elsewhere in Asia may be ignored or belittled as a matter of course. 

Metrics such as journal impact factor and H-Index, long

proven to be bogus indicators of scientific productivity, have become the stuff of nightmares hounding today’s young academics (Sugimoto; Lariviere 2018). The dominant global university rankings are clearly focused on the competition for students in the global educational market. The THE-WUR website even has a special “Student” tab where it promotes its list of “best universities” and “popular study abroad destinations.” 

Should a public university in a developing country like the Philippines really be so strongly invested in marketing itself internationally and competing with Oxford and Harvard for moneyed foreign students? Is this at all a part of the mandate of all the struggling and underfunded SUCs (state universities and  colleges) in the Philippines?

Unique historical role

These international rankings fail to recognize UP’s integrity as a social, cultural, and scientific institution with an important and unique historical role for the country.

Objectively, only three of the THE-WUR standards can, without modification, be said to be significant for UP in terms of needing improvement. These are: staff-to-student ratio, doctorate-to-bachelor ratio, and doctorates-awarded-to-academic-staff ratio. But UP has been trying to improve these metrics as a matter of course, despite chronic underfunding, through the decades, with or without the rankings. 

And on the matter of being the “best,” can Harvard really be the “best” in Philippine Studies? In Philippine marine or geological sciences? Can Oxford really be the “best” and most knowledgeable in addressing the specific needs of Filipino students and their communities?

As has been shown above, the THE-WUR ranking depends greatly on the Euro-American-centric database of the “international” Elsevier-Scopus citation index. There may be other, more balanced and holistic, research metrics which not only take these publications into account, but also includes publications in the Philippines and Asia that are not covered by Elsevier-Scopus or Clarivate-Web of Science databases. 

The world of science cannot be parochial and also should not be imprisoned in the false and illusory internationalization underpinned by those citation databases. Furthermore, supporting Elsevier-Scopus and Clarivate-World of Science in their anti-open access campaigns and monopolistic practices, even indirectly, is like supporting intellectual apartheid.

Instead of further being enslaved by these rankings, the UP administration should aim for more meaningful objectives such as strengthening support for the improvement of teaching, boosting research work in all fields and eliminating bureaucratic obstacles which hamper it, consolidating and developing local and national journals and publications as channels for the free dissemination of knowledge, ensuring that UP serves the Philippines’ needs and addresses the welfare of its citizens, standing up in defense of academic freedom, and improving the working conditions of the university’s faculty, researchers, and administrative staff. 

Greatness will come only from embracing what is essential.

Academics need to remain critical of these international ranking systems. These, in fact, have nothing to do with the most important mission and mandate of UP and other SUCs in the Philippines: serving the Filipino people with honor and excellence.

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