HE leaders divided over rankings at high-level meeting

Senior academics were divided about the value of ranking universities in Africa during the ongoing Conference of Rectors, Vice-chancellors and Presidents of African Universities, or COREVIP 2023, organised by the Association of African Universities (AAU) in Windhoek, Namibia.

The differences came to the fore on 4 July, in a plenary session, ‘Stakeholder Engagement in the Development of Higher Education in Africa’, during which Leigh Kamolins, the director of analytics and evaluation at Quacquarelli Symonds, the London-based firm that produces the QS World University Rankings, presented an update on the ranking of universities in Africa.

The discussion also came shortly after the release of the first Times Higher Education Sub-Saharan African University Rankings 2023 on 26 June, which elicited a diversity of views, both in favour and against the rankings, from within the higher education sector.

It also came after university leaders from institutions across the world, including Africa, at a meeting in June, stated that they are concerned that “current global university rankings often result in an unhealthy use of competition that reproduces and reinforces social inequities and global science inequalities”.

At the COREVIP meeting, one school of thought appeared to support institutional ratings and viewed rankings as a critical benchmark which universities could use to break quality barriers in terms of increasing research output, citations, the quality of teaching and to attract talented staff and students.

The second school of thought urged African universities to be cautious of ranking metrics that could not be comprehensively measured or were not even understood by academia itself.

Sustainability rankings

In his remarks, Professor Rachid Serraj, the director of strategy at the Mohamed VI Polytechnic University, or UM6P, in Morocco, said new ranking metrics such as sustainability and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), are hard to measure in Africa as indicators show African countries are struggling to meet most of the SDG targets.

He argued that sustainability indicators are not only complex and hard to measure but, in most cases, it is hard to verify the validity of the data that are provided to the rankers.

“We are in the red as far as the SDGs are concerned,” said Serraj in the conference that ends on 7 July.

Serraj questioned how universities, in countries that are far behind in meeting SDG targets, could be accurately measured through indicators that are not even included within their scope and responsibility.

According to him, it is like shooting in the dark, while other delegates argued that universities may not have policies on human rights issues, or even have opinions about their carbon footprint.

Haters and lovers of rankings

But Professor Peter Okebukola, a former executive secretary of the National Universities Commission in Nigeria, said that, whereas rankings may fail to measure everything, they are quite useful to help universities to improve their performance and to identify institutional strengths and weaknesses.

Okebukola, who had just been appointed as the AAU’s higher education ambassador for West Africa, told delegates that, as far as he is concerned, there are three groups within the African ranking debate, namely those who hate rankings, those who love them and those who don’t care.

“But, according to my experience, those who hate rankings now were, at one time, great supporters, but dropped out in frustration when their universities were lowly ranked,” said Okebukola.

However, some delegates said there is no point in universities and academics asking some ranking institutions hard questions about their processes, as some rate universities without requesting data or requesting input from the universities.

During the discussions, Webometrics Ranking of World Universities, an initiative, of the research group Cybermetrics Lab of Spain, was cited as one ranking agency that never consults universities.

What are the rankings about?

But, in his presentation, entitled, ‘Excellence and University Reputation: The Ranking of African Universities’, Kamolins stressed that most of the QS university rankings focused on empowerment through fostering international mobility, educational achievement and career development.

Citing some of the indicators that QS uses in ranking universities, Kamolins identified institutions’ academic reputation, employer reputation, faculty-student ratio, international research network, papers per faculty and staff with PhDs. Other indicators included international faculty ratio, international student ratio and citations per paper.

These metrics, said Kamolins, enable universities to evaluate their performance against their peers.

Further, he noted that QS rankings have been built on the views of academics, employers, students, independent advisory boards and the universities. “But we would like to highlight that students had been always at the heart of our ranking model,” stressed Kamolins.

In this regard, Kamolins explained that QS empowers students with independent insights on which global universities demonstrate excellence in a wide range of performance areas. He said most students expect universities to show progress in social and environmental areas.

Questioned about the reliability and validity of the sustainability metrics and SDGs, Kamolins explained that, when applying to a university, 47% of Millennials and Generation Z pay attention to climate change, activism and social media engagement issues.

“So far, only 14% of students are not interested in issues related to the environment, gender equality, minority rights and anti-racism issues, and 39% are interested in such issues to some extent,” said Kamolins.

Sharing information gleaned from QS student surveys, Kamolins said most students think of universities as being environmentally friendly. “But, even then, there is an overwhelming perception that universities could do much more for environment,” Kamolins told delegates.

He argued that 88% of university candidates claim it is essential or very important that their university takes action to reduce [factors that have a negative] environmental impact,” said Kamolins.

In that context, Kamolins revealed that QS sustainability rankings are based on two pillars, environmental impact and social impact. Each of the two pillars has various indicators of which those embedded in environmental impact include sustainable institutions, sustainable education and sustainable research.

Within the social impact sphere are indicators such as equality, knowledge exchange, impact of education, employability and opportunities, as well as quality of life.

Asked by QS researchers to comment on issues that matter to prospective students from Africa, he said they expect their university to take a leading role on sustainability matters. For instance 79%, according to Kamolins, agree that everyone should be looking at ways to reduce carbon footprint and only 41% believe that the dangers of climate change have been blown out of proportion.

What do students in Africa want?

Prospective African students also overwhelmingly agree on key social impact issues as 76% concurred that a lack of employment opportunities is the biggest issue facing society today.

Vice-chancellors, rectors and other university leaders in African universities were reminded that, while making decisions to study abroad or locally, what matters most to students in Africa, is the availability of scholarships and funding, a welcoming atmosphere and the quality of teaching.

Other issues that matter to them include the reputation of a university in a student’s field of study, a university’s links with employers and high graduate employment rates.

Subsequently, in order to attract motivated students, Kamolins advised African university leaders, irrespective of the rankings, to ensure access to quality education, take seriously issues related to diversity and inclusion, improve their reputation, raise the quality of teaching, ensure good employment outcomes for graduates and work on sustainability targets.

Taking into account that there was no general consensus or a uniformity of direction by the African universities on rankings, it appears the debate about the merits and demerits of ranking, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa will continue.

It also emerged that, while it is difficult to get reliable data for some metrics, most ranking firms are likely to continue ranking universities using some hard-to-measure indicators by citing the process to be part of African student needs.