Debate over value of university ‘visibility’ rankings

The relatively poor showing of Algerian universities in the United States-based Webometrics survey released in July has attracted mixed responses about the value of the international ranking.

Out of a total of nearly 28,000 universities ranked by Webometrics, Algeria’s top three universities are the Djillali Liabès University of Sidi Bel Abbès at position 2,341; Houari Boumediene University of Science and Technology, or USTHB, at 2,345; and Mentouri Brothers University, Constantine, at 2,555.

The lowest-placed universities are those located in the cities of Mostaganem, Bèchar and Chlef at positions 27,634, 27,714 and 27,764 respectively.

The Webometrics Ranking of World Universities, also known as the Ranking Web of Universities, ranks universities according to the volume of the web-based material and the visibility and impact of these web publications according to the number of external in-links or site citations. The aim of the ranking is to improve the presence of academic and research institutions on the web and to promote open access publication of scientific results.

According to the Webometrics site, some Algerian universities “do not even have a website, while others do not even take the trouble to update it”.

The site goes on: “These practices not only penalise the ranks of universities but also considerably diminish their visibility in search engines and, more importantly, their global impact on the Internet, which informs the poor quality of teaching and scientific research.”

Reacting to the rankings, the management of USTHB said in a statement that the Webometrics ranking indicates that the university is placed first in Algeria and 38th in Africa out of 974 institutions. “We find that USTHB is strongly penalised for visibility (7,428 ranking in the world), but has a ranking significantly better for its scientific publications (1,556).”

The university said it would work to improve the university’s visibility and credibility on the internet – “Our site, its content, but also the links and the attractiveness of the site”. To this end, it has proposed the development of material in different languages. It has also encouraged research laboratories to update their sites and has encouraged teachers to put up content for students such as examination results and job offers.

Debate over usefulness

But not everyone agrees that the rankings are useful.

Professor Abdelhamid Jakkoun, president of Mentouri Brothers University described the rankings as “very hard and tough”. However, he said the national rankings “mean nothing in the current situation”.

‘We do not give much interest to these advertisements; we have other ambitions,” he said.

Professor Mohamed Lagab from the Faculty of Information and Communication at the University of Algiers described the results as “far from rewarding”.

“We should be ashamed of this ranking; it is once more a slap in the face of all members of university community,” he said.

His concerns have been echoed by Sonia Bisker writing in the French-speaking Algerian newspaper Liberté: “For three decades Algerian universities have lost their prestige even in Africa and they are completely absent in the international science community … Our universities are not even included in the list of those pre-selected for the annual ranking. The mediocrity which strikes the Algerian school reflects negatively on the quality of education at the university.”

Redouane Benhamid, a PhD student at Belkacem Saadallah Algiers University of Social Sciences, agreed: “The results indicate a slow erosion of the Algerian university’s global prestige that nobody has sought to stop.”

LMD system

In a recent evaluation report, the National Council of Higher Education laid partial blame for the deterioration in quality on the licence, masters, doctorate or LMD system, and argued that Algerian universities “have not succeeded in putting in place the conditions for a real take-off and have not capitalised on scientific and pedagogical experiments”.

Professor Karbache of the Department of Physics at Mentouri Brothers University in Constantine agreed that the LMD system had put further strain on a system already burdened by growing numbers of students and overly bureaucratic governance systems which were in need of greater transparency, accountability and efficiency.

“The university of the future will be a university where the teacher and the student will be the pivot of it and not the administration with its heaviness and control of pedagogy and research," he said.

In reaction to the rankings, Minister of Higher Education Professor Tahar Hadjar said his department has already taken a series of practical measures to improve the visibility of the Algerian universities and ensure their better ranking at the international level.

He called on all universities to build up programmes for economic and social development based on scientific foundations. He said teachers and researchers needed to be aware of the procedures required for the publication of articles in international scientific journals and encouraged them to show respect for their institutions by including the name of their institutions in their publications.

“There are a large number of scholars who regularly contribute to international journals but without mentioning the institutions to which they belong. This causes us to lose a lot of potential to be better classified,” he said.

Methodology and criteria

Hadjar said Algerian universities tended to emphasise access to higher education and criticised some of the national media which he accused of denigrating the image of the Algerian university on the basis of their international rankings. He said the rankings should not always be taken “for granted” owing to questions around methodology and criteria.

However, Nadim Mahassen of the Center for World University Rankings said a quantitative approach to world university rankings responded to demands from consumers, stimulated competition and provided some rationale for the allocation of funds. It also helped to differentiate between different types of institutions, programmes and disciplines.

“The rankings of higher education institutions will become part of the framework of national accountability and quality assurance processes, and this is why, ultimately, more nations are likely to see the development of rankings in the future,” he said.