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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

World University Rankings ignore local contexts of universities, say experts

Alec Basson

The legitimacy of World University rankings is often questioned because they don’t consider the local contexts of higher education institutions, especially those in developing countries.

This was the gist of a presidential roundtable discussion of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) held at the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University (SU) on Wednesday this week. Moderated by Prof Jonathan Jansen of the SU’s Department of Education Policy Studies, the discussion focused on the topic: University Rankings: Helpful or harmful?. This was the first of a series of sessions to be held across the country.

The ASSAf roundtables bring together experts in a particular field to address a critical issue percolating in society that requires the deliberation of the best minds on the topic.

Trying to offer a balanced view of rankings, Prof Robert Tijssen from Leiden University said despite the huge diversity of rankings and the robustness of the system, there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

“Some performance metrics are biased, some are less irrelevant and others are ambiguous. We don’t have a clear idea of what they represent. There is no rationale behind the weighting system and the choice of metrics is not transparent.”

“This is a major shortcoming.”Tijssen said it is important to spell out why certain metrics are picked and others ignored.

“I feel there’s not enough effort to help users in terms of educating them and making them aware of the advantages and limitations of rankings.”

Highlighting some of the advantages of rankings, Prof Lis Lange from the University of Cape Town said they give students more choice in terms of where they want to study and also provide information on the position of a country in terms of international competitiveness.

“The other thing that they do is to put, in a certain sense, some level of pressure on individual higher educations to shape or shift the strategy in a certain direction. They also change the way universities are managed.”

Lange pointed out, however, that one of the unintended consequences of rankings is that the idea of being in the top 100 becomes the strategy of universities.

“The whole being of the university is reduced to being one in the top 100 and this has very serious implications. Rankings become the gold standard.”

Regarding the relevance of rankings for Africa, Prof Nico Cloete of the Centre for Higher Education Trust and Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa said they’re completely beyond what institutions on the continent should be focusing on.

“We need a strategy to develop research and knowledge-producing institutions. Many of the rankings aren’t helping with this.” 

Echoing some of the sentiments of the other speakers, Prof Zeblon Vilakazi from the University of the Witwatersrand said he has his reservations about rankings.

Alec Basson works for the Corporate Communication Unit of the University of Stellenbosch

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