Hang On: The Other side of University Rankings

2014-07-22 19:46

Having recently been the "First Student" of the University of the Witwatersrand (as its SRC President), I was beaming with pride after the Center for World University Rankings (CWUR) placed Wits University as the best university in South Africa, Africa and 114th in the world. I was a happy chappy, really. But reality slowly set in: how much do university rankings really tell us about an institution of higher learning and how seriously should we take them?

Without doubt, university rankings play a significant role in shaping our perspective on universities. They serve as an important benchmarking tool which allows us to compare different universities while also allowing us an opportunity to see where we can improve. However, there are shortcomings to the practice of ranking universities and many academics and leaders of society have spoken about these. I hope to share a bit about them (the shortcomings, not the academics) with you.

The major issue with university rankings is that they do not take into consideration domestic realities and issues of national importance. In our concerted efforts to emulate the Oxfords and the Harvards, we ignore pressing issues that our universities need to respond to here at home. Our universities may find that it’s easier to respond to the ranking system’s appraisal rather than attempting to, say, come up with agricultural solutions to fight a food crisis in a country. Put another way, the allegiance of universities may, first and foremost, be to the international ranking bodies with the issues of the country coming last. While I don’t believe that our universities totally neglect their domestic, nation-building responsibilities, it can be argued that these do not necessarily take priority as universities fight their way to the top.

A good South African university is one that should determinedly and resolutely throw its efforts and energies behind making this a better country (irrespective of what the world ranking systems will say). A great university is one that can do this while still remaining attractive in international rankings; that is a university that deserves to be recognised amongst the best of the best. What should matter most to us is what the university has done for its community and how that institution has bettered the lives of the members of that society.

Another issue with rankings is the actual ranking methodology. With the dominating criteria being research output and citations and peer reviews and student-to-staff ratios, university rankings have grossly over-simplified the intricacies of a university. A university is a complicated cocktail of different minds coming together to learn and produce knowledge. They are societies on their own and incorporate people from all walks of life from a wide range of belief systems which further adds to the complexity of a university. Ranking systems ignore the qualitative characteristics of a university and disproportionately focus on a few quantitative statistics and present this to us for consumption. And there are at least 17 different ranking systems (and this excludes countless regional rating systems), all offering an opinion based on half-fact about how great (or pathetic) your university is.

Some qualitative issues ignored by university rankings include student life on campus. Just how happy are the students? Do they have shuttles and dependable Wi-fi? What kind of infrastructure is available for the students in class, at residences and in the sporting fields? Are these factors not also important? Apparently not. They don’t consider how women are treated and how dangerous the campus can be for homosexuals and minority racial groups. They ignore the fact that many students don’t have residences and food and find themselves illegally squatting in libraries and at friends’ places. They ignore the fact that university workers and cleaners are treated like second-rate citizens. They don’t look at the fact that political activity has been banned on campus and that the freedoms of expression, assembly and speech are all but dead. The fact that there’s corruption (my word, the tenders!) and sexual abuse of both students and staff is not important. The squabbles between Senates and Councils and Vice-Chancellors are not considered. Here, I have just briefly highlighted only some of the realities of most, if not all, universities at least in South Africa which are not that important for the rankers.

Now, some may argue that although ranking systems are not perfect, they still do serve an important role in the higher education setup. Indeed I agree with this sentiment, but the flaws of the practice should make us take them with more than just a pinch of salt.

One thing remains clear: Rankings should not direct our thinking, vision and direction. They should rather act as entertaining, but collegial competition between universities (think: UCT and Wits) and should not distract us from what is important. What’s important is responding passionately and effectively to our country’s problems by providing innovative and sustainable solutions in an environment that is friendly, mentally-stimulating, socially-just and academically-conducive for students, staff and all stakeholders. When a university achieves this mammoth task, they can give themselves a pat on the back, declare true success and give themselves a Bell’s (a beverage which is rated amongst the best in the world, no?).

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