Can Sub-Saharan African universities benefit from rankings?

The growing number of global and regional university rankings has brought into sharp focus the complexity of assessing and rating universities in terms of their fundamental missions, subject competencies, research output, reputation and societal accountability – among other issues.

To many critics of the rankings, some of the metrics that are being used are unclear and unverifiable, while the self-reporting by the universities is often exaggerated. Other critical reviewers of the rankings have faulted the use of surveys to measure the reputation of the universities, as some are open to bias.

But, whichever the case, apart from a few universities, notably in South Africa and Egypt, most African universities have become, more or less, the whipping boys of these rankings.

Bearing in mind the adverse circumstances that most African universities operate in amid overcrowding, decayed and inadequate physical facilities, limited resources and unfavourable academic staff-student ratios – some education experts have been wondering whether African universities should be in the ranking race at all.

To widen the ongoing debate on the issue, University World News talked to Dr Peter Wells, the head of education for UNESCO Southern Africa in Harare, and former chief of higher education, UNESCO in Paris, on some of the salient issues on the global ranking of universities in Sub-Saharan Africa.

UWN: Do you think university rankings should be done away with altogether, or not taken seriously, in the light of criticism that most of the global university rankings have not been a good measure of quality of the universities in general, or certain academic fields in particular?

PW: Irrespective of opinions on rankings, like them or loathe them, the reality is they are here to stay – at least for now. While some of the global rankings have been around for decades (US News & World Report, Times Higher Education (THE), Academic Ranking of World Universities, or ARWU, QS World University Rankings, and so on) and have matured with very clear and transparent criteria, other rankings pop up in various guises in different media forums, sometimes with less clarity on how they are compiled and on what datasets or sources they are based.

The key is to know how to read any ranking and to understand what it is and, more importantly, what is not being ranked. UNESCO published The Uses and Misuses of University Rankings precisely for this reason.

A critical point to remember is that there are now over 20,000 officially accredited institutions of higher learning globally, so any list of a ‘top’ 100 or 500 or even 1,000, can only include a fraction of these higher education institutions, all of which are, in some shape or form, serving their communities of learners to the best of their capacities.

Let me put it this way: just because a café, restaurant, hotel, or museum doesn’t show up on a Tripadvisor’s Top 10, doesn’t mean it’s a bad café or hotel.

In terms of ‘measuring quality’ or performance through ranking, again, it comes down to what exactly is being measured. Is it research output or impact (against the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs, for example)? Quality of learning experience? Graduate employability? Individual disciplines or programmes, for example MBAs, engineering, medicine or architecture programmes?

The list is almost endless. If you want to find something to rank, you can. However, again coming back to ‘love them or loathe them’ – rankings have provided an impetus for each higher education institution or even system of higher education to reflect on what it or they consider to be ‘good quality’ – be it in what they teach, research and the community services it or what they provide in individual or system contexts.

Self-reflection and then a strategy for quality enhancement can only be a force for good – and not for the purposes of appearing on, or rising up any ranking list, but as an ethical obligation to be the best they can be for their communities.

UWN: Even if rankings are here to stay, is there any justification for putting African universities in a race that they cannot compete in fairly, especially when they have to cope with large numbers of students, high percentage of lecturers without PhDs, limited physical facilities and meagre financial resources?

PW: Again, let me recall that there are 20,000+ higher education institutions globally and 99% will be excluded from the most reputable rankings – whether they are from Africa or elsewhere.

Clearly, rich universities with enormous endowments (Stanford University famously raised US$1 billion in one year) will have the advantage over what I would call ‘normal’ universities which struggle for state funding and have much more modest or meagre resources – not only in Africa, but globally.

This does not diminish their importance or relevance, provided they continuously strive to make sure they are relevant to the communities they serve. It is not about competition. Don’t compete, be unique.

UWN: To what extent are the THE Impact Rankings and the THE Sub-Saharan Africa, or SSA rankings, that have a significant share of their metrics evaluate institutional performance in the SDGs, a distraction for African universities from focusing on quality of higher education through teaching and research and development?

PW: In my opinion, the Impact Rankings are, on the contrary, a leveller in the field of rankings, since they don’t rely on heavy investments, research citations in top journals and so on, but on how a higher education institution is making a difference to the communities it serves.

‘Impact’ can, of course, be examined from many angles but, since the world has agreed that the 17 SDGs are the benchmark for improving the lives of individuals and countries around the world, these are as good an indicator as any other.

If a university is not addressing one or more, or even all of the SDGs through its learning, teaching and research in some way, one has to ask the question: then what are they doing and for whom, to make higher education meaningful for national development and individual aspiration? That said, it is up to the individual institution to forge its own path and decide how it wants to measure its own ‘impact’ or added value to society, if not using the SDGs as a measuring tool.

UWN: In the THE SSA 2023 rankings, only 88 universities were ranked, after assessing 121 universities in the region. Do you think the sample is adequate to inform on challenges that are currently being faced by universities in SSA?

PW: Clearly, this is a small cohort, but the question is not how many are on the list, but how many submitted data or stats to the THE for the SSA ranking. And more importantly, why did many, many more not submit data?

If the reason was because they didn’t have the data – then that is very worrying, since it suggests they don’t collect the data, that they are not monitoring their own effectiveness; that they are not a concerned community and subsequently justifying the public funding to support this.

Again, if the rankings of SSA universities prompts others to begin to institutionalise regular data collection, monitoring, and evaluation – regardless of a THE survey – then, in my opinion, that can only be a good thing for the overall quality enhancement of any system of higher education.

UWN: Critics have cited a lack of research metrics in terms of publications and citations in SSA rankings as a weak point in assessing universities in the region. What do you think?

PW: It is important to recall the three pillars of the university: education (learning), research and community engagement, and, hence, research is clearly an important factor and, in my view, the SSA rankings takes this into account under its ‘Africa Impact’ methodology criteria.

I do, however, feel that the strength in the first round of the SSA ranking is that it takes into account other – arguably more relevant – aspects of measuring higher education in the region.

As I say, there are three pillars of the university, and not every higher education institution can be everything to everyone – they need to be something to somebody.

Research is clearly important to inform learning and teaching, but measuring this against research-intensive higher education institutions globally is inappropriate, in my view. Small-scale student and teacher or academic research projects that can make a difference or impact, are equally vital, not just in Africa, but globally.

UWN: Recently Rhodes University in South Africa announced that it would no longer participate in university rankings. Do you think other universities in Sub-Saharan Africa could make similar decisions?

PW: There is certainly a trickle of a trend for this ‘opting out’. There may well be some justification(s) for this and provided those institutions are transparent as to why they are opting out (in much the same way that ranking organs are now called upon to be transparent in how they rank) then that is entirely at the institution’s discretion.

Will others follow? Perhaps, but if this is simply because they don’t have the data to submit, then that is, as I have said already, of concern for continuous quality enhancement of a higher system of higher education institutions.

UWN: To what extent has the agenda of ranking universities become an economic enterprise for the ranking agencies?

PW: For the legitimate ranking organisations (already cited above), I don’t believe there is a question of ethical compromise in the methodology or results.

UWN: What advice would you give to African politicians and governments that urge universities in their respective countries to improve on their global university ranking footprint, without first having a clear understanding of the criteria used by different ranking outfits?

PW: I would flip this. It should not be about climbing rankings or appearing on any list. It should be about using or adapting the criteria employed for any given legitimate ranking list and applying that to an individual higher education institution to reinforce its mission, vision and strategy.

UWN: Is it time for African universities to operationalise the African Quality Rating Mechanism, or AQRM, the rating mechanism that was developed by the African Union in collaboration with the Association of African Universities to help universities carry out self-evaluation exercises based on specific metrics?

PW: I definitely believe that individual self-evaluations at institutional level are the way forward, and these must now urgently form the foundations for building trusted and valued higher education systems with – in some instances – vitally overdue changes in curricula, types of courses, pedagogy and assessment methodologies to address the realities of national development plans. Failure of higher education institutions to do this, risks their becoming redundant and obsolete.

UWN: What should be the way forward for ranking universities in SSA and even other countries in the Global South?

PW: It is early days. I cannot speak for the THE, but as with its other rankings (and there will be others, for sure, from other organisations), it will undoubtedly refine and adjust the criteria and methodologies based on feedback from this first edition of the SSA rankings.

Individual higher education institutions can, of course, choose to participate or not, and the next list will still not be exhaustive. What is more important, to my mind, is not whether they appear on any ranked list, but whether they are helping individuals to a better future and, therefore, a better future for Africa.