Rank­ings not whole story

The Herald (South Africa) - - OPINION & ANALYSIS - Jonathan Jansen

WHICH is South Africa’s top univer­sity? Is it UCT or Wits? It de­pends who you ask, when you ask and which ranking sys­tem you use.

Uni­ver­si­ties slide up and down the rank­ings from one year to the next and with more than 30 such sys­tems in place, take your pick.

And yet the ques­tion is real for we live in a com­pet­i­tive so­ci­ety and a com­pet­i­tive world.

Par­ents want to know which univer­sity is the best for their child or which law school of­fers the best le­gal ed­u­ca­tion.

Alumni take great pride in the in­sti­tu­tions where they stud­ied and want to know if their univer­sity is still among the best.

Stu­dents like to brag among their peers that their univer­sity is topranked in the coun­try, on the con­ti­nent and in the world.

So as much as univer­sity man­agers might say, “we don’t re­ally care about rank­ings”, all the top South African uni­ver­si­ties work very hard be­hind the scenes to po­si­tion them­selves favourably on the ShangaiRan­k­ing Aca­demic Ranking of World Uni­ver­si­ties or the Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion (THE) World Univer­sity Rank­ings or even the on­line We­bo­met­rics Ranking of World Uni­ver­si­ties, which mea­sures the web pres­ence (web con­tent, den­sity, im­pact and vis­i­bil­ity) of uni­ver­si­ties.

These global rank­ings were the sub­ject of the first pres­i­den­tial round­table of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) in which four lead­ing higher ed­u­ca­tion schol­ars shared their assess­ment of the value of ranking sys­tems in gen­eral and for South Africa/Africa in par­tic­u­lar.

The prob­lem, ar­gued Pro­fes­sor Robert Ti­jssen, from Lei­den Univer­sity, is that the de­sign­ers of the ranking sys­tem of­ten strug­gle to an­swer the ques­tion about pur­poses. Why is this be­ing done in the first place?

Pro­fes­sor Lis Lange, of UCT, had a blunt an­swer: rank­ings are sim­ply one part of the new global sys­tem of knowl­edge pro­duc­tion which has built a for­mi­da­ble in­dus­try around the ranking busi­ness.

And yet, as Pro­fes­sor Ze­blon Vi­likazi, of Wits, ar­gued, univer­sity lead­ers in­vest in this in­dus­try with the re­sult that “rank­ings are here to stay, whether we like it or not”.

Per­haps the most in­ven­tive work on rank­ings in Africa has been led by Pro­fes­sor Nico Cloete, of CHET (Cen­tre for Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Trans­for­ma­tion) in Cape Town.

His ap­proach is more de­vel­op­men­tal and seeks to rank African uni­ver­si­ties in re­la­tion to each other on met­rics that can direct in­ter­nal re­sources and ad­vance growth (such as the num­ber of staff with doc­tor­ates).

The re­sults are not sur­pris­ing: South Africa’s uni­ver­si­ties dom­i­nate the con­ti­nen­tal rank­ings es­pe­cially in re­la­tion to the sheer vol­ume of re­search pub­li­ca­tions.

But the ques­tion could, of course, be asked: what is the point of in­ter­na­tional rank­ings if not to mea­sure your­self against the best in the world?

To use a sport­ing com­par­i­son, there would be no point in mea­sur­ing South African cricket against Zim­babwe or Kenya; a more valid com­par­i­son is against In­dia (a sore point given the cur­rent ODI se­ries), Aus­tralia and Eng­land.

In other words, you never re­ally know how good you are un­til you are ranked against the best. Which brings us back to pur­poses. My own view is that rank­ings can re­veal ar­eas in which a univer­sity can grow and im­prove on its schol­arly work.

For ex­am­ple, ranking cri­te­ria might show that too many aca­demics in African uni­ver­si­ties pub­lish in low-qual­ity jour­nals with weak peer-re­view sys­tems and there­fore pro­duce knowl­edge of limited sci­en­tific or so­cial value.

Clearly the next step then is to strengthen the ca­pac­ity of these uni­ver­si­ties to pro­duce top qual­ity schol­ars who pub­lish in learned jour­nals of sig­nif­i­cance to science and so­ci­ety.

But ranking for the sake of claim­ing brag­ging rights or boost­ing na­tional egos is a prob­lem, for then the prac­tice of rank-or­der­ing uni­ver­si­ties serves sim­ply as a hurt­ful re­minder of the aca­demic in­equities em­bed­ded in the global sys­tem of knowl­edge pro­duc­tion.

In other words, a ranking that pits Har­vard Univer­sity, whose pri­vate en­dow­ment of $35.76-bil­lion (R422.7-bil­lion) far ex­ceeds the na­tional bud­gets of most African coun­tries, against Mak­erere Univer­sity, is patently un­fair.

It glo­ri­fies Har­vard and hu­mil­i­ates Mak­erere sim­ply on the ba­sis of the mas­sive ad­van­tage of re­sources held by the Cam­bridge, Mas­sachusetts, univer­sity.

As I ar­gued in the ASSAf round­table dis­cus­sions, it’s as if Europe (or the West for that mat­ter) never un­der­de­vel­oped Africa – in the terms of the Guyanese his­to­rian, Wal­ter Rod­ney.

That said, play­ing the vic­tim in the face of these very in­flu­en­tial and global ranking sys­tems will leave South Africa and Africa ma­rooned on their aca­demic is­lands of medi­ocrity.

The best re­sponse is to ask the prac­ti­cal ques­tion: how can African in­sti­tu­tions lever­age the ranking sys­tem in ways that strengthen our uni­ver­si­ties?

What are the fields in which we have strength (like trop­i­cal medicine at Mak­erere or HIV/Aids re­search at UKZN) that must be ex­tended, and ar­eas in which much work needs to be done to raise the qual­ity of re­search or teach­ing? I ad­vise par­ents to re­lax. There re­ally is lit­tle dif­fer­ence in qual­ity be­tween a de­gree from UCT or Wits or Stel­len­bosch or Pre­to­ria and other lead­ing South African uni­ver­si­ties.

You may want to think of other cri­te­ria not well-cap­tured in the global rank­ings: which univer­sity will teach my child well, of­fer ad­e­quate per­sonal se­cu­rity and in­stil a sense of com­pas­sion for those on the un­der­side of his­tory.

There are no rank­ings that mea­sure these vi­tal at­tributes of a 21st century grad­u­ate.

TOP UNIVER­SITY: The cam­pus of the Univer­sity of Cape Town, that has been rated as one of the top uni­ver­si­ties in the coun­try

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