Opting out of the rankings game in Sub-Saharan Africa
Many vice-chancellors around the world privately admit that university rankings are methodologically flawed and that they do not offer a valid impression of the quality of an institution.
However, this doesn’t stop them from publicly participating with the businesses that rank universities. Increasingly, such leaders drive institutional decision-making along the lines of what will be most beneficial to their ranking, rather than what will best allow the university to achieve its academic project.
While some rankings are specialised and attempt to provide the public with insights into specific aspects of higher education, most are generic and draw up their list of universities based on the mean average of a range of metrics.
The problem is, as we teach our undergraduates in introductory research methods courses, you can’t calculate an average from adding apples to oranges. The issue is not just with the addition of incommensurate items or the arbitrary nature of their weighting, it is that many of the metrics are poor proxies for the university activities they purport to represent.
Reputation, for example, which is a large portion of the calculation for some ranking systems, is largely a measure of status and history rather than indicating anything about the quality of the undergraduate student’s experience. As such it is reinforcing colonial legacies of higher education.
Rhodes University in South Africa recently restated its long-held position that an academic institution that is committed to sound research principles should not participate in rankings.
In doing so, it is joining high-profile universities around the world that have expressed concern about the neocolonial nature of ranking systems.
Why Rhodes opposes ranking systems
Rhodes University’s assessments of the ranking systems highlight the following:
• The rankings suggest that universities work in an entirely market-based ideology without recognising their responsibility as a public good. Being a public good can, at times, entail taking decisions which militate against an institution's positioning in the rankings.
• The rankings ignore social concerns. Responding to community needs and attending to a redress agenda are rendered largely irrelevant by such systems.
• Rankings reward elite and exclusive admissions processes.
• Rankings are methodologically flawed in that they consist of combining unrelated measures to produce a composite score.
• The weighting of each measure is arbitrary, and any changes in weighting results in a reordering of the rankings making the validity of the rankings questionable.
• The ranking systems use one set of criteria for all institutions, with a failure to engage in the context, history, or aims of the specific university.
• The rankings systems privilege research outputs over teaching and learning and community engagement, often without any measure of the quality or impact of such research outputs on society.
• Universities increasingly use ranking metrics to steer institutional decision-making, which drives funding away from activities such as community engagement that might otherwise have been deemed central to the institution’s purpose.
Higher education remains a public good
Despite Rhodes’ opposition to rankings, this does not mean that the university is excluded from these processes; instead, rankings organisations continue to include the university on the limited information that is publicly available.
It is hard to dismiss the allure of rankings, especially as the general public understand them to be a scientific measure of quality. But it is particularly important that universities do so if they are to maintain scientific integrity.
It is helpful that high status institutions, such as the Law Schools of Yale, Harvard, and UC Berkeley are now publicly rejecting the rankings game, indicating that they are in conflict to their commitment to diversity.
And much of it is indeed a game, with some universities going to inordinate lengths to play the system.
While no African university has yet been found guilty of fudging their stats or paying for institutional affiliations on research publications that have no relationship to their universities, we know that such gaming happens, just as it does in the United States.
And now Times Higher Education has announced the launch of Sub-Saharan Africa university rankings.
Sub-Saharan Africa has enjoyed a surge of research productivity in recent years – and this is to be celebrated – but the rankings is set to fail in terms of taking into account the more diverse agendas of universities as public good institutions that should serve the interests of people and the planet – and not just as a marketplace in competition, undertaking only those activities that can readily be counted.
While the new Sub-Saharan rankings promise to consider a wider range of purposes of higher education through its pillars of ‘access and fairness’, ‘Africa impact’, ‘teaching skills’, ‘student engagement’ and ‘resources and finances’, it remains based on an entirely market logic of competition and the basic methodology remains scientifically flawed.
Higher education as a public good is already constrained on the African continent by years of colonialism and World Bank policies. It would be a great pity if we now rush to participate in a billion-dollar industry that pits us against each other.
Professor Sioux McKenna is the director for the Centre for Postgraduate Studies at Rhodes University, South Africa.