Value of rankings – A means for universities to improve

“There can never be a single, reliable, overarching ranking system that is acceptable to all universities and interested parties, because universities mean different things to different people,” says Gerald Wangenge-Ouma, director of institutional planning at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. But universities should use ranking as a means to improve, while ranking systems should support stability and recognise multiple expressions of excellence.

“I’m for a system that supports stability so that universities don’t think they have to keep moving here and there to clinch a top position in the ranking. I’m for a ranking system that acknowledges that universities are different, are located in different political economies and perform different roles.

"I’m for a rankings system that acknowledges the multiple expressions of excellence across the various things that universities do.”

Wangenge-Ouma will participate in a panel on university rankings at the British Council’s Going Global 2016 conference being held from 3-5 May in Cape Town, South Africa, under the theme “Building Nations and Connecting Cultures: Education policy, economic development and engagement”. University World News is a media partner and is previewing some of the themes.


The field of university rankings is bustling with activity. Global ranking systems are evolving quite rapidly and there are new rankings coming in, and offshoot rankings drawn from existing information such as those for Asia, Latin America and ‘young’ universities.

Many countries have national rankings and some – such as the United States – have numerous rankings across a range of indicators from research to cost to safety. Some countries, such as the United Kingdom and South Africa, have de facto rankings in the form of research assessments, and others such as Kenya are considering producing rankings. The European Union is supporting U-Multirank, a ranking that is everything to everyone.

Rankings, Wangenge-Ouma points out, are big business and lots of people want a piece of the pie. “So going forward, we’re going to see more and different kinds of rankings coming onto the scene and trying to distinguish themselves from existing rankings,” he told University World News.

“There are going to be a lot more rankings and more that are focused on particular areas or regions. We’re likely to see departments that have oversight of higher education institutions coming up with ranking systems.”

There has been a lot of criticism of the main ranking systems for not considering country or regional specificities, or country policy thrusts that should keep higher education busy, or for focusing too heavily on research and on science fields.

The big players have made changes to their systems. For instance, QS won’t consider an article with more than 10 authors. The humanities are getting more attention and there are efforts to measure teaching and learning – which is important for regions like Africa where there is a strong focus on the training function of universities. There is a push for university engagement to be considered.

“We’re seeing people coming up with all manner of things, claiming that they are trying to address the limitations of the current ranking systems. In certain instances they are making the whole thing unwieldy,” Wangenge-Ouma believes.

There remains considerable resistance to university rankings, which are essentially hierarchical and thus never going to be satisfactory to all institutions, alongside widespread acceptance of their importance.

“Where hierarchy kicks in, people start saying: no, but you must understand that we’re only 10 years old; but you must understand that we are addressing government imperatives; but you must understand we are a social science-based institution; but you must understand that we don’t receive sufficient funding from government.”

Taking advantage of rankings

University ranking is like globalisation, says Wangenge-Ouma: “You cannot say you’re out of it because it sucks you in.” Universities are approached to provide data. “They say it is voluntary and it is OK if you don’t want to. You say ‘we don’t want to’. But when the ranking is released you see that you’re there.”

The University of Pretoria has referenced a few rankings – Times Higher Education, QS, the Leiden University ranking produced by its Centre for Science and Technology Studies, and Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities. Institutions should decide for themselves which rankings to use.

“We reference these rankings to drive internal performance. The University of Pretoria has determined that it wants to be a leading research university. There are certain things we want to achieve. We use these ranking systems inter alia to determine how we are doing.” For instance, how does the institution’s research in genetics compare with the best in the world?

“It helps us in making internal decisions, in terms of what we might need to do to improve our performance in certain areas.”

Wangenge-Ouma argues that universities should relate to rankings vis-à-vis institutional objectives and national imperatives for higher education, “and not use a ranking as an end in itself, as a flag that you fly high up there when you appear in some ranking, and say ‘We’re the best in the world'.

“Because people change the ranking criteria, so the following year you might not appear – and what do you say then? Has your quality suffered. Are you now a mediocre university?”

The case of Africa

Could Africa use university rankings in an innovative way?

“One hundred percent. I don’t believe in this idea of African exceptionalism. We're not doing this, we’re not doing that because of our colonial history, because we don’t have this, because we don’t have that.”

Continental plans and declarations, such as the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and resolutions that came out of the African Higher Education Summit held in Dakar last March, aspire to enhance research on the continent.

Rankings, says Wangenge-Ouma, could play an important role, for instance in determining which universities have the wherewithal or concentration of capacity to set up centres of excellence. “We recognise that we do not have sufficient resources, so why is everyone on the continent doing the same things with the little resources that they have?”

Rankings can be used by universities not only at the institutional level but at the subject level to identify people who are doing exceptional things in their fields. “What might that mean for the rest of Africa in terms of enhancing science, support for postgraduate education or partnerships across the continent?”

Although only a few African universities are performing well in current rankings at the global level, “if you dig deep further down, you see there are very interesting things happening across the continent.

“And so the question becomes, how do you optimise these things to enhance excellence – whether it is in teaching or research or community engagement – and draw lessons?”

An African university ranking system would be a useful tool, Wangenge-Ouma believes, but should not be approached from the point of view of exceptionalism – that Africa should have a different ranking system in order to avoid being compared against the best in the world. “We would be lying to ourselves."

Universities are embedded at multiple levels – local, regional, national and international. “They have to keep an eye on these multiple levels of embeddedness and see how best to position themselves."

Times Higher Education is developing an Africa university ranking based on its existing database.

There are, says Wangenge-Ouma, also continental bodies that could produce an African ranking, such as the Association of African Universities, which has legitimacy and broad membership across all regions of the continent. The capacity to produce a ranking would have to be developed, perhaps with support from the African Union’s higher education desk.

The Academic Ranking of World Universities is produced by a research unit at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and African rankings could also be produced by a strong African university.

A differentiation point of view

Considering the differentiated nature of higher education systems and the fact that universities (rightly) pursue different things, any ranking system should take into account that universities exist in particular contexts and have particular niches and visions.

“My position, from a differentiation and diversification point of view, is that universities occupy particular spaces in their societies and perform different roles across their regions. We can’t take just one of the roles, which is privileged across many ranking systems, and say you are only going to be considered a good university if you are doing this well.”

While knowledge is universal, Wangenge-Ouma argues, there are universities producing very context-specific knowledge that is, for instance, supporting subsistence farmers or being taken up immediately by communities.

“Ranking systems should acknowledge some of these things. What we’ve seen is universities running away from their areas of strength, and trying to do things that are privileged by the ranking systems, even though they don’t have the capacity to do them."

Humanities suffered drastically because of the rankings' emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Now that the QS ranking is including the humanities more – “a good thing in my view”, he says – some universities are once again supporting humanities.

And that’s why Wangenge-Ouma wants rankings systems that are stable, recognise difference and context, and acknowledge multiple forms of excellence.