University rankings: Boon or bane?

Whether there is any value in university rankings remains a debated topic. (Photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Whether there is any value in university rankings remains a debated topic. (Photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters)

The Academic Ranking of World Universities (Arwu) announced last week that five South African universities were among the top 500 universities in the world. But there are mixed opinions in the education sector about the value of world university rankings.

The University of the Witwatersrand is the top university in the country. It is followed by the University of Cape Town (UCT), Stellenbosch University, the University of Johannesburg and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Three other universities placed in the top 800 bracket in the world are the University of Pretoria, North-West University and Unisa.

Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande said this “should be celebrated as a significant national achievement”.

Some in the higher education sector believe rankings are necessary for universities to assess their performance against their peers in the world, and also serve as a marketing tool. But they also cautioned that the ranking should not be seen as the “alpha and omega”.

Others are more blunt. A senior executive in the higher education department, who asked to remain anonymous, described the university rankings as “ego boosters for vice-chancellors”.

“Ratings are not important. But they are a feel-good effect when your institution is rated higher,” said the senior executive.

Most industry players believe the criteria used in university rankings leave out critical considerations such as the social context of South African universities.

Professor Ahmed Bawa, the chief executive of Universities South Africa, said: “In the context in which our universities function, it is very unlikely that any of our institutions will be research-intensive in the sense that the majority of the students will be in postgraduate programmes. In fact, all of our institutions are undergraduate institutions — and correctly so.

“So while these ranking systems help us to benchmark against international systems, we must be acutely focused on ensuring that our universities must be designed to meet the needs of our society, of our economy.”

In an article in the online media outlet The Conversation last year, the former deputy vice-chancellor of research and internationalisation at UCT, Professor Danie Visser, expressed similar sentiments.

“Rankings are very imperfect measurements of excellence. They take no account of the contexts in which universities find themselves, particularly those based in developing or emerging economies. They do not measure some of the functions of a university that the sector would regard as critical: for instance, whether the research a university undertakes makes a difference, or whether the graduates it produces are thoughtful and productive citizens,” he wrote.

The executive director of communication and marketing at UCT, Gerda Kruger, acknowledged that, although the university continues to do well in rankings, they fail to “give a perfect view of a university — they do not take into account some of the crucial roles universities play in developing countries.

“They do not, for instance, measure the extent of a university’s social engagement — its responsiveness to the communities around us and in the rest of Southern Africa — or the degree to which a university develops capacity in Africa, growing the next generation of researchers. Both of these are crucial to UCT’s mission,” she said in a statement after the release of the rankings.

The criteria used by Arwu include alumni and staff winning Nobel prizes and field medals, highly cited researchers and papers published in magazines Nature and Science.

Other rankings use different criteria: the Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings, in which some of the country’s universities have featured, looks at the academic reputation, employer reputation and international student ratio. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings looks at teaching research, citations, industry income and international outlook.

The senior executive from the higher education department believes these rankings miss a lot that goes into the development and education of a student. He also believes that they emphasise research but ignore the value of teaching and learning.

Only a few universities around the world have produced Nobel laureates for research that would be used as a criterion. “South Africa has had about six Nobel winners, largely in human rights, but because they were not associated with any university that wouldn’t count towards a ranking of a university.”

“As long as universities don’t produce ground-breaking research and as long as they don’t produce Nobel laureates, for example, they can’t make it higher than where they currently are in those rankings. People like JM Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer wouldn’t make any impact on the rankings because they are not scientists. Chris Barnard made a ground-breaking operation but that wouldn’t count either,” said the executive.

Bawa believes that the country’s universities could only rise up the ranking systems if the rankings took into account factors such as social relevance, their contribution to development and the role they play in building a more equal society.

For him, the country’s universities punch above their weight considering the “difficult contexts” in which they find themselves. “For one, our system is seriously underfunded and this places huge constraints on its ability to take on some of the criteria used in these ranking systems. And of course our university sector has to deal with the enormous transformatory challenges which apartheid has left behind. They do well in the context.”

But, in a chapter on rankings in Africa in the book Global Rankings and the Geopolitics of Higher Education, the director of the Centre for Higher Education Trust, Professor Nico Cloete, and others write that university rankings are an important part of the globalisation of higher education.

“The goal is not necessarily to make it to the top 500 but to achieve what global rankings achieve for institutions that are in the top ranks. They therefore want to be at the top of their own race, remain competitive in their own regions and among their peers, prove their worth so as to attract funding from governments and international funding agencies, and attract the best students and faculty members,” they said.

Although some in the sector are sceptical about the value and role of rankings, some students said their decision to study at their respective universities was partly because they feature in world rankings.

A first-year student at UCT, Lwanda Shabalala, said studying at a ranked university pushes him to work hard and smart.

“I may not consciously think about it every day, but in my subconscious, the idea of being associated with one of the top-ranked universities is encouraging and motivating. In my subconsciousness, it does matter to me that UCT is ranked highly across the world.”

A third-year student at Wits, Kirsten Noome, said the higher the ranking, the better known the university would be, and therefore better accredited when its graduates are searching for a job.

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