Measuring HE ethics: An inclusive new ranking is launched
The new Globethics.net University Ranking (GUR), launched on 16 November 2022 with University World News as the media partner, claims to provide a unique global ranking instrument that places values, ethics and sustainability as central principles of higher education institutions worldwide.
It encompasses themes not previously captured in other higher education ranking instruments, including the aspirations of students and the values of institutions.
“We are proposing a new higher education framework to assess key stakeholders on integrity, values-driven leadership and sustainability commitment,” Dr Aftab Dean, director of the Globethics.net University Ranking, told University World News.
At the launch, Professor Christoph Stueckelberger, the founder and president of Globethics.net, a not-for-profit higher education organisation based in Switzerland, told his international online audience that while global rankings had “positive elements in stimulating competition and quality”, the main rankings were heavily skewed towards the West, biased towards research outputs, and excluded 95% of higher education institutions.
Looking at the three main rankings – the QS World University Rankings, the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) and those produced by Times Higher Education – the “top 100s tended to be dominated by the same universities”.
Their methodology “is not holistic, but elitist” and UNESCO had suggested they “did more harm than good”, claimed Stueckelberger.
While that was a stronger verdict than he might make, he warned that existing rankings can be harmful if they become the primary source of information for parents in, say, Nigeria or China, when searching for the best universities to which to send their children to study abroad.
Stueckelberger said the focus of the first Globethics.net rankings had been on developing and transition countries in order to rate their quality education and show that good universities can be found outside the United States and United Kingdom and around the globe when it comes to ethical standards – a reality he hoped might help to reduce brain drain.
Western bias of traditional rankings
Dean, who was commissioned to evaluate and analyse the responses and develop student evaluation instruments, said traditional rankings relied too much on “secondary data”, such as publication in select journals which were biased towards Western higher education institutions, as were some of the weightings they set.
“They look at things like the number of Nobel Prize winners and nine out of the top 10 countries for Nobel Prizes come from the West.”
For example, the Shanghai ranking or ARWU gives a 10% weighting to the number of alumni with Nobel Prizes and Field Medals and 20% to the number of staff at the institution with a Nobel Prize.
“At the same time, the 20% weighting for highly cited research is based on papers published by Nature and Science and the top 10 institutes that published the most in Nature and Science are dominated by institutes from the US, with seven, and Europe, with three,” Dean told University World News.
Dean also questioned whether reputational rankings are based disproportionately on responses from a selection of experienced published scholars in Western universities and whether there is enough transparency over who is responding.
“Academics can only provide assessment on institutes they are familiar with,” he told University World News. “Knowledge of other universities in developing and underdeveloped countries is very limited. Just because they don’t have the resources of the West does not mean they are not producing something with intellectual punch.”
He said Globethics.net recognises the value and importance of the major rankings for their contribution to the research agendas of leading universities, which is critical. But there was more that could be measured than just research and teaching quality using secondary data.
“Let’s not have a binary view of higher education where institutions are considered either research or non-research universities. We are saying universities are multidimensional and should be viewed holistically.”
That was the starting point for developing a new methodology focusing on students and staff as key stakeholders for the new Globethics.net rankings, he explained.
Dean said he and the team had been “overwhelmingly cautious” when testing the new measurement instruments designed for the first Globethics.net rankings, which were pilot-tested in five countries in the first year.
In the first year of data collection, his team deleted 3% of responses from the dataset collected from institutes representing 38 countries due to missing institute data and considerable effort was put into “the hierarchy of weightings” for the main tables which look at the student and staff experience in relation to institutional commitment to ethical goals.
Students were evaluated on which of the following learning, social and aspirational experiences – teaching, assessment, skills development, social experiences and aspirations – resulted in stronger commitment to integrity and pursuing sustainability activities.
For staff Globethics.net asked them to assess the following: investments in internal environment; an institute’s values and overall staff satisfaction. The metrics were employed to determine which metric had the most influence in securing staff commitment to contributing to the success of the institute.
A final table provided an overall score for each of the top 25 ranked institutions taking part in this, the first iteration of the rankings.
Cape Verde university at the top
Universidade de Santiago, a private institution in Cape Verde, got the highest overall score and gained the best marks for student learning experience and for student sustainability and integrity.
Instituto Superior de Formación Tributaria, Paraguay, came second overall and scored highly for both student learning experience and conducive working environment for staff towards institutional commitment to sustainability and resilience.
Welwitchia Health Training Centre in Namibia came third, sharing top marks in the student sustainability and integrity table.
Clarke International University in Kampala, Uganda, took fourth spot overall in the league table of the top 25 universities out of the more than 100 institutions from 38 countries taking part in the first year of the rankings.
Rose Clarke Nanyonga, vice-chancellor of Clarke International University, told the launch event that her institution felt existing regional rankings “fell short of what was required” and she hoped the Globethics exercise would help to measure leadership commitment and could be expanded to adopt standardised measurement tools for sustainability and integrity.
Higher education, she said, should be value-based and “about developing the whole person, not just about grades”.
Juny Montoya Vargas, director of the Centre of Applied Ethics at Universidad de los Andes, Colombia, which came 14th in the first Globethics league table, told the launch event: “Ethics should be the language of the university... but they are not easy to measure.”
She said while her centre was promoting a vision, it needed to be shared by students and faculty.
University World News Editor-in-Chief Brendan O’Malley congratulated those behind the initiative and said: “We’re very interested in what Globethics is trying to do – and it will be interesting to see how the ranking evolves – as we have run many analyses and criticisms of rankings and their bias towards the top research universities in English-speaking countries.”
He said universities have to think about what higher education is for. “Yes, that includes building knowledge and enabling students to fulfil their potential, but it is also about transforming societies and we share the values behind this initiative.”
From exclusivity to inclusivity
Amélé Ekué, academic dean of Globethics.net, one of the key drivers of the project, said the new rankings would help the “democratisation of access to quality education” and “change the narrative from exclusivity to inclusivity”.
She said: “Universities habitually perceive university rankings as a competitive instrument. But we want to emphasise quality education for all and shift the understanding of ranking as a kind of competition instrument and move towards collaboration.”
The major critique of classical ranking systems, she said, is that resource-intensive institutions in the Global North are more privileged.
“We are saying that quality education can be provided by all and for all, regardless of geographical location, size or financial means.
“So for us the ranking project is also a matter of sustaining educational justice.”
Ekué said the COVID-19 pandemic had provided an opportunity for critical introspection of how higher education is practised and told the launch event that Globethics.net is engaged with more than 200 higher education institutions, as well as international organisations and global and regional associations for higher education.
“We heard time and again how important it is to emphasise those ethical criteria and principles of equity, diversity and inclusivity in higher education and so the ranking for us is in support of this major shift.”
She said higher education should not be viewed in isolation and instead should be seen in terms of its societal impact and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals constitute a very good international framework for doing so.
Ekué said 235 million students are enrolled in universities worldwide, with an enrolment rate of 40%, but there are major discrepancies between countries and within regions and recent international conferences have highlighted the urgent need to tackle inequalities.
Institutional learning opportunity
She said Globethics.net and the tables being unveiled at the launch offered an excellent institutional learning and capacity-building opportunity.
“On the one hand, ranking metrics are based on research and teaching output indicators and we believe these are not obsolete and need to be considered, but they need to be expanded, and you will see how the enriched learning experience, or the criteria of sustainability, or the work environment that institutions provide are important in this context.”
Ekué said ranking should not be about making visible competitive advantages, but about “learning together and nurturing international collaboration to equip the next generation of ethical leaders”.
In his closing remarks, Dean told the launch event that the methodology would be further refined for the second year and he looked forward to a wider range of higher education institutions getting involved. He said it is free to take part and urged more universities interested in being ranked in future Globethics.net surveys to email email@example.com for more information.
One of the most interesting findings was the strong indication of how committed to integrity and sustainability, including meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), are most staff and students and how that related to their commitment to their institution.
Dean said that, on the flip side, one worrying result highlighted by this first attempt at the rankings was that one-third of students indicated that they were not particularly committed to engaging with sustainability and integrity after graduation and a quarter of staff do not believe their institution is particularly committed to or is demonstrating a commitment to meet the SDGs.
He said by comparison any company that had one-third of its customers disappointed in what they were doing would be making an immediate response, and said: “So we see our rankings as a call to action.”
A recording of the launch of the Globethics.net ranking can be found here.
Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. Follow @DelaCour_Comms on Twitter. Nic also blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.