Debate at ARC7 raises questions about preserving academic quality when rankings are linked to contributions to the UN Sustainable Development Goals
May 17, 2019

APRU Secretary General chairs debate at the 7th Asia-Europe Rectors’ Conference and Students’ Forum (ARC7), 12-14 May 2019 | Bucharest, Romania

Is measuring the relevance of research to the Sustainable Development Goals as a metric of university rankings a way to inspire students and faculty to focus on solving global issues? Or will it undermine the quality of research?

Dr. Christopher Tremewan, APRU Secretary General, attended the 7th ASEF Rectors’ Conference and Students’ Forum to discuss Higher Education Taking Action Towards the Sustainable Development Goals: Perspectives from Asia & Europe. APRU presidents and senior leaders also attended from Chulalongkorn University, the University of the Philippines, National University of Singapore, University of Sydney, Korea University and Yonsei University.

Dr. Tremewan designed and chaired a lively debate between Mr Phil BATY, Chief Knowledge Officer, Times Higher Education (THE) and Prof Sunhyuk KIM, Professor of Political Science and Former Vice President for International Affairs, Korea University, on the proposition that “Connecting SDGs to research rankings will undermine academic quality.”

In encouraging conference participants to attend, Dr Tremewan said: “I would particularly welcome anyone who wants to engage in the debate, who can hold contradictory views in tension as they come to a decision, and be open to new insights. Many of us will see merit in both sides of this debate and so it will be particularly fascinating to see what arguments win through on the day.”

The proposition implied that using UNSDG-focused, mission-driven research is short-term and likely to be less productive and ground-breaking than curiosity-driven research. Imposing narrow objectives is likely to be destructive of the serendipitous nature of research especially when the value of it may only be recognized much later.

The argument against the proposition related to the responsibility of institutions to demonstrate that their use of public funding for research contributes to society’s well-being.  At this time of global inequality and ecosystem crisis, shouldn’t educators inspire students and faculty to focus on solving global issues?

Although each speaker could see arguments for both sides of the debate, Professor Kim spoke for the motion and Mr Baty against. The audience was invited to vote before the debate and after each debater had spoken and after discussion with the floor. The debate raised the range of issues that need to be aired around this subject and many in the audience expressed their support for using the debating format as a good way to do this.

Before the conference, Dr Tremewan was interviewed on whether globalisation of higher education is enabling or hindering higher education institutions to work towards a sustainable future. He responded that:

Much depends on the definition of globalisation. If the objective of globalization is a collective commitment to the global common good then I believe we will be able to realize a sustainable common future. Clearly, we will need to live with ambiguity as this positive promise of globalization emancipates itself from the current dominant model.

Currently, globalization means an international competition to climb up the rankings, continually competing against each other for scarce research funds, shaping objectives according to corporate goals and political imperatives, and racing to join a global elite either as an institution or as a faculty member or student. If we do not move beyond this, we are condemned to a treadmill of moral indifference and the mediocrity of conformity to norms of fading relevance.



See his interview in the Asia-Europe Foundation eBulletin.

The 7th ASEF Rectors’ Conference and Student’s Forum (ARC7) was co-organised by the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) and the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration (SNSPA), between 11-15 May 2019 in Bucharest, Romania.  Established in 2008, the ASEF Rectors’ Conference and Students’ Forum (ARC) is a multi-stakeholder dialogue platform for university leaders, policy makers and education practitioners, and students to discuss higher education issues and shape the education landscape in Asia and Europe.