Do we need to rank the country's institutions of higher learning? If so, what kind of authority has the credentials to do the job and what criterion does it have to assess the quality of a university?
Both questions are important because they decide whether the rankings can be trusted.
However, the pay-to-play scandal this week reveals a dubious nexus between a university and the panel to carry out such rankings, raising questions about the need and credentials for the exercise.
Investigations show that the person in charge of the panel told a lie about the institution to which the panel is attached, and he could not spell out what criteria was used to appraise the quality of a university.
Immediately after the report, authorities from the Ministry of Education declared that they did not support the rankings and firmly opposed the "business" between universities and the panel. The money from universities to sponsor the panel for ranking universities is in the nature of a bribe, which should be banned, according to the ministry.
If anything, there is a conflict of interest between the panel and universities. Asking for money from universities will undoubtedly affect the objectivity of the panel in the ranking exercise.
What is both ridiculous and sad is the fact that the panel has been doing the ranking for several years and many have taken it for granted that the rankings published every year are authoritative.
The statement from the Ministry of Education shows that the panel has nothing to do with the ministry. But how could the ministry have done nothing all these years when a panel from nowhere has been publishing rankings of universities which are supposed to be under its administration?
If the public has been kept in the dark about what is behind the ranking in recent years, the ministry should be at least charged with dereliction of duty.
As for the universities, which paid the panel for a higher place in the rankings, the decision makers need to be punished also for dereliction of duty.
Further investigations are urgently needed to know the operations of the panel - the background of the person who initiated it and how it could convince those universities, which paid it of its authenticity.
That some universities revealed that they had turned down the request for money from the panel speaks volumes for the motivations of the panel.
If the panel and its exercise in ranking universities is really a fraud, then we must ask the question of how such a fraud could be in operation for such a long time without being exposed. This is even more important than punishing the fraudster.
The fraudsters are able to operate because we leave room for them to maneuver. If the Ministry of Education had questioned both the authenticity of the panel and the rankings it had first published, it would have been impossible for some universities to be cheated and the public to be fooled. If any of the universities had verified the background and credentials of the panel, the fraud could not have gone on.
(China Daily 05/07/2009 page8)