Get rankings right for Africa, university leaders urge

If the conversation about university rankings is important, then the starting point would be to design a ranking system for Africa that encourages positive conduct – “precisely because we know that rankings are influential, for example in resource allocation”, said University of Johannesburg Vice-chancellor Ihron Rensburg at the inaugural Times Higher Education Africa Universities Summit held in the city from 30-31 July.

In going forward, the vice-chancellor said, “we have to examine what behavior we want to incentivise and encourage. It seems we will also have to have a conversation about what is universal and what is specific to the African context, because it is impossible to move away from some key universal missions or roles of our institutions.”

Co-hosts Times Higher Education, or THE, and the University of Johannesburg repeatedly stressed that the event was not a rankings summit but about the renewal and the future of African universities.

However, rankings were why many delegates were there, and in the weeks before THE had caused a continental stir by releasing a ‘snapshot’ ranking of the top 15 universities in Africa based on just one indicator – how many times research articles are cited by other academics.

There were eight South African universities in the top 15, two from Morocco and one each from Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda. At the summit, the top 30 were revealed.

Concerns and suggestions

Rensburg articulated a “pragmatic approach” recognising that institutions such as the University of Johannesburg had the mission to make a significant contribution to the highly skilled needs of society and the economy. The consequence was a university that graduated some 11,000 undergraduates a year and 130 PhD graduates at best.

It was unrealistic, given the manner in which rankings were constructed, for an institution such as the University of Johannesburg to have expectations of rising into the global top 200.

However, Rensburg described a “credibility problem” in the THE experimental ranking, with the ordering of universities – it was not possible, for instance, “for the University of Pretoria to find itself out of the top 10”. Other delegates outlined other ranking anomalies.

Rensburg’s third concern – “and a difficult one” – was about thresholds. The THE Africa ranking put the participation bar at a minimum of 50 publications a year. “But is that a decent threshold? Is that a centre of excellence?” Rensburg asked.

Finally, there was the matter of proxies. “Again, we’re going to have to be realistic as we go forward. We’re not always going to be able to measure what we should measure directly, and therefore proxies are going to have to be utilised in order to get the best approximation of the state of our institutions in relationship to our peers.”

Rensburg argued for two areas to be included in African university ranking indicators.

The first was inter-Africa institutional collaboration, which needed to be incentivised and supported. “It is not about a pile of agreements that sits in our drawers, it is about concrete stuff,” said the vice-chancellor.

Important, for instance, was the number of joint programmes between a South African and a Nigerian university – collaboration in areas such as PhD courses, early career development and joint programmes, flows of students between institutions, and research collaboration.

A second issue was social impact. One measure was employment among graduates – but that excluded entrepreneurship, said Rensburg. Another was student volunteerism. Out of 40,000 undergraduates at the University of Johannesburg, up to 13,000 were involved consistently in organised student volunteer action in organised programmes with communities.

The African Higher Education Summit held in Dakar, Senegal, in March set a target of developing around 200 centres of excellence across Africa in the coming decades. Rensburg suggested that work be done to define what a centre of excellence might look like, and then institutions could be encouraged to move collectively towards being that kind of institution.

Angina Parekh, deputy vice-chancellor (academic) of the University of Johannesburg, had a problem with the idea of the summit ending and participants thinking “it is OK to tweak what we’ve heard about today. It is not OK.”

There had been much talk about the African Union’s Agenda 2063, said Parekh. Rather than starting by building an ‘ideal’ African university and trying to measure it, it might be a good idea to start with Agenda 2063 and find out what the goals are and the roles of universities and how they are contributing “and then work out how to measure against that”.

Credibility crucial

Professor Gbemisola Oke, deputy vice-chancellor of Nigeria’s leading University of Ibadan, said her field of health had always had ‘rankings’ of sorts to ensure that the best therapeutics and treatments were delivered. A good index had to be reliable, consistent and sensitive to capture the situation on the ground, and had to be “reproducible all of the time”.

Higher education, the professor continued, was not getting the change it required. “All along we have been focusing on the push factor, while rankings would provide a pull.

“So ranking is desirable, but if it is not credible and reliable then it is best just thrown out, and that is what will become of any ranking that awards a particular rank that checks itself and finds that I am here while another institution I defer to is not even on the list.” If that happened, it would not be long before such a ranking fell out of favour.

It seemed that higher education and its rankers had all the answers. “It is just putting them in the right proportion. I see the current rankings as being lopsided in favour of metrics, and metrics relies a lot on digitals and not really going to check facts on the ground.”

Oke said the great need was to address the state of higher education in African countries, and particularly the role universities were expected to play.

“We need to look at universities in terms of the curricula.” For instance, do curricula advance employability or entrepreneurship in a country such as Nigeria, where there are at least 40 million unemployed youth?

“Publications are important but must weigh less when ranking African universities,” Oke concluded.

Transforming metrics

Last month the Higher Education Funding Council for England published The Metric Tide: Report of the independent review of the role of metrics in research assessment and management. The review was chaired by James Wilsdon, professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex.

Wilsdon makes the pertinent point that metrics are constitutive of values, identities and livelihoods, said Professor Cheryl de la Rey, vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria. And rankings are entirely dependent on metrics.

“When I look at the categories used in the ranking system that we’re discussing today, and more deeply at the criteria, I want to extend that notion and say that what ranking systems also do is build a particular model of what a university is and what universities are about."

The summit had been discussing the concept and roles of an African university. A common theme across all sessions had been that African universities “are essentially about contributing to development, which is so critical to our future and our present. And we particularly talked about the relevance of African universities to Agenda 2063,” said De la Rey.

“What we should avoid is having a set of indicators that persuade us to move in a direction that is completely inimical to African development goals. So the key question for us is what are the indicators within the broad core activities of teaching and research that speak to these development goals?”

The issue of which indicators used for ranking – to measure research, teaching, industry linkages, international output indicators and so on – speak to developmental goals was not only an African but also a global issue. “It’s an issue of sustainable development that we will be talking about as a global community.”

At the University of Pretoria, De la Rey continued, all students are expected by graduation to have participated in community engagement. “But it is not simply about volunteerism, it’s about creating a different quality of graduate – a different quality of citizen, not only for South Africa and Africa but also for the world.”

De la Rey is vice-chair of the global Talloires Network of engaged universities, which has been arguing that the important engagement contributions of universities need to be recognised globally.

“Particularly, we need to open up a discussion about how community engagement influences our teaching and research and how can we then perhaps look at it in metric terms, because metrics have a certain kind of utility that we can’t ignore.

“We’ve been innovative in the past in developing proxies for research – we have wonderful systems like Scopus – and we can be equally if not more innovative in looking at how we can convert or develop proxies to measure some of these contributions that we make.”

Finally, said De la Rey, it was important to recognise that some ranking indicators might not be helpful in the African context. For instance, while it is important to measure the employability of graduates, Africa does not have a large manufacturing sector and it might be as useful to try to measure social aspects of innovation.

“Like everybody else I agree that rankings are here to stay. But it’s very important to our African community of universities that we don’t simply respond to what exists – that we use this opportunity to persuade the world about the bigger picture that faces us as a global community.”