LOVE them or loathe them, rankings of universities across countries and regions are here to stay.
They began with the release of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Academic Ranking of World Universities in 2003, followed the next year by the famous (or infamous) Times Higher Education Supplement World University Rankings.
These annual products are now referred to by aspiring students, by academics and researchers looking for greener pastures, and by employers keen to recruit the best and brightest candidates. Collaboration among universities can often be influenced by their respective ranks.
The recent elevation of five Malaysian universities as research universities can be seen as a form of ranking.
Increasingly, scientific research and experimentation have become the major focus of universities, resulting in an explosion of scientific knowledge and technological development of immense human benefit.
Sadly, advances in the North do not necessarily advance the interests of the South. In 2003, the then United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan lamented: "95 per cent of the new science in the world is created in the countries comprising only one-fifth of the world's population. And much of that science... neglects the problems that afflict most of the world's people."
This ties in directly to the biggest flaw of university rankings. They are based very much on research output rather than teaching or community service, for example. Additional criteria would better reflect the relevance of a 21st century university.
Surely there is scope -- perhaps in the form of Key Intangible Performance (KIP) indicators -- to credit university academics who get involved in the larger community at home or abroad. For instance, academics who enjoin controversial public debates like global warming, genetically modified organisms, nuclear energy and stem cell cloning.
I recall several years ago the disappointed reaction of university vice-chancellors in our part of the world, Malaysia in particular, to a global ranking of universities that failed to include even one local university in the top 100.
My vice-chancellor friends should not despair. I was at a United Nations meeting at the time in the company of many world academic leaders who hardly noticed the announcement.
They were more concerned about the relevance of today's universities' agenda to the plight of the world's have-nots -- specifically, the contributions of universities worldwide towards the Millennium Development Goals. (The MDGs include eradication of extreme poverty and hunger; achieving universal primary education; promoting gender equality and empowering women; reducing child mortality rates; combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability, and developing a global partnership for development.)
The past 50 years have been characterised by unprecedented economic growth; increased life expectancy and increased agricultural production. However, inequality has widened: 1.2 billion people -- nearly one in four on Earth -- live on less than US$1 (RM3) per day; one billion people lack access to clean water; more than two billion people lack access to sanitation; 1.3 billion are breathing air deemed unacceptable by the World Health Organisation, and 800 million people are food insecure.
The UN estimates that one-third of the world is well fed, one-third under-fed, and one-third starving. Every 3.6 seconds someone dies of hunger.
To satisfy the world's sanitation and food requirements would cost only US$13 billion (RM45 billion) -- what the people of the United States and the European Union spend on perfume each year.
Have our universities faced up to the "human challenge" confronting the global community? Sadly not. We are mired in the game of trying to become the equals of the great universities of Europe, North America and Japan.
Seeking the collaboration and assistance of such organisations should be encouraged. Publishing in high-impact journals such as Science or Nature is a reasonable goal as our universities evolve in the global academic community.
For too long, however, we have been mesmerised by the "publish or perish" paradigm, as captured in the mono-dimensional global university rankings, even though the "human challenge" we face is multi-dimensional.
The mission of our universities needs to include meeting the socioeconomic challenges faced by the world's bottom billions.
Paradoxically, of late such a reorientation of focus has been taken up by universities such as the UK's Cambridge and Imperial College London, and by America's Harvard, MIT and Princeton.
Today, Malaysia's economic well-being is at a crossroad. As the prime minister put it recently, we risk being trapped in the middle-income bracket.
To achieve the country's New Economic Model, eight strategic reform initiatives are being proposed. Our universities are needed to take up the challenge of meeting the possible policy measures so eloquently outlined.
Today's universities can never be oblivious to the problems faced by the rakyat, at one level within our own shores, and at another level, the world beyond our borders.
Let us ignore the irrelevant rankings of world universities, re-examine our fundamentals, and strive to be relevant to the pressing problems close to home in our increasingly challenging world.
Professor Datuk Zakri Abdul Hamid is chairman of the National Professors Council and science adviser to the prime minister. This is an excerpt of a recent address given at a function of the Malaysian Qualifications Agency