Call for civic engagement shake-up of rankings

International league tables should take account of civic engagement when they are ranking universities, according to vice-chancellors, academics and students gathered on 4 December at the closing ceremony of the Talloires Network Leaders Conference near Cape Town, South Africa. This was one of six points in a Call to Action, a closing statement for the 264 delegates to take back to their institutions in 41 countries.

Members of the 332-strong international network of engaged universities were asked to work to “influence the global higher education ranking systems to take civic engagement seriously as a university contribution to society”.

During the two-and-a-half day conference, the negative effects of the current system of league tables on the engagement agenda were a recurring theme.

People from many different settings and countries described how the pressure to move up the league tables often diverted resources and dissuaded university leaders from giving civic engagement the attention it deserved.

Advancing engagement

Universities were also urged to increase the rewards for academics who engage in community-based teaching and research as well as public service. Sending this signal to academics about the importance of civic work is seen by many as one of the best ways that institutions can bring engagement into the mainstream of university work.

Universities should do more to measure the impact of their engaged activities, both in terms of outcomes for students and benefits for the community. Tools are needed to measure impact and this would allow universities to disseminate the results of engagement more widely.

The need to get students more involved in designing and running engagement programmes was a fourth recommendation.

Also important was “how to develop student leaders’ influence and integrate them into the leadership of the Talloires Network”, according to Anthony Monaco, president of Tufts University in the United States, who added: “I hope they already feel integrated into the network.”

At the conference Monaco became chair of the Talloires Network’s steering committee and Cheryl de la Rey, vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria in South Africa, became vice-chair.

Talloires Network members should strive to increase access to higher education for those groups of people still under-represented and should harness the potential of civic engagement to promote social inclusion, said the Call to Action.

Finally, universities should strive to better prepare students for civic and economic participation and active citizenship – “to educate students who are effective and successful global citizens”.

The conference delegates noted that in the face of high youth employment, the network currently has a unique opportunity to demonstrate the link between education for active citizenship and education for launching careers and entrepreneurship.

“We are not alone in this world, but many people do not have the wherewithal to understand what we have piloted,” said Cheryl de la Rey.

“So it is up to us to educate them about civic engagement and it is up to us to make sure that we take this activity from the periphery to the core.”

Rankings thinking

The problem of university rankings subverting civic engagement came up right at the start of the conference, in the form of a question from the audience to the opening keynote of Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, who replied:

“It depends which rating agency you are talking about. There are one or two that do use civic engagement as an indicator. There are many that don’t even look at it at all.”

The issue was whether the top university rating agencies could be moved to take in civic engagement as an indicator for their rankings.

“I think that you’re going to have to have some kind of collective action of institutions, on which so much was built in this country but which we, as a higher education sector, seem not to be very good at,” said Habib.

“Gather a group of universities and tell the rankings that you’ll collectively withdraw if they don’t take in civic engagement in the future. I guarantee you that every one of them will listen.

“They may not act exactly the way you want them to but for the first time you would have the rating agencies wake up. That will work, even if they probably won’t use it in the way you intended to.”

Habib said collective action had been proven to work in publishing in recent years, where “the publishers don’t write the articles, they don’t do the quality check and then they charge thousands and thousands of dollars”. Collective action by, among others, mathematicians had resulted in significant progress towards open access to information.

“Collective action is something poor people in our part of the world understand. It could be useful if we started trying this too.”

Olav Øye, former executive committee member of the European Students’ Union and one of 40 student representatives from around the world at the conference, challenged the idea of any kind of action to convince the rating agencies.

“Why do you want to even engage with the very same rankings that we all criticise all the time?” he asked Habib. “I do not understand why universities keep taking these rankings so seriously.

“And if you do, why would you want them to try to quantify community engagement when we all know how difficult it is to measure?”

Habib loved the comment. “I think that’s spot on,” he said, continuing that it just underlined the contradiction of his work environment, where daily realities force you to take into account a host of different perspectives.

“Those of us who take the top positions in the rankings really like them. The rest of us say that we think they are unreliable.

“But when parents start using them to make choices for their children, it gets difficult to ignore them. Even though we know that they don’t make sense!”