Global university rankings and the nuance they omit

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Global university rankings and the nuance they omit

Lisa-Anne Julien

18 Feb 2019

4min min read
  • Education

niversities from 10 African countries feature on The Times Higher Education (THE) 2019 World University Rankings, which judges the performance of research-intensive universities across the globe. More than 1 250 universities were included in the survey, with Oxford University securing the top spot. Four South African universities ranked among the 10 best-performing African universities, followed by those from Uganda, Egypt and Nigeria. 


African universities ranked on the 2019 World University Rankings. (Source: THE World University Rankings 2019)

  • View THE's list of African university rankings here

But what does this all actually mean? In such a diverse global climate, can there really be a standardised formula for assessing what a university has to offer?

In an article for the Irish Times, Ellen Hazelkorn argues that global university rankings tend to reduce positions to simplistic measurements and set agendas that often have little to do with the institutions themselves. 

Distorted university perceptions

The 2019 THE Rankings methodology used 13 performance indicators grouped into five areas: teaching, research, citations, international outlook and industry income. A disproportionate weighting was placed on research and citations, which each counted for 30% of the total. It is no surprise, then, that research-intensive universities such as University of Cape Town (ranked 156, and the only African institution to rank below 200) and the University of the Witwatersrand (ranked in the 201-250 range), performed well in the rankings as, together, they account for approximately 20% of the total research output in South Africa

In an article for The Conversation, Ahmed Essop, a research associate at the Ali Mazrui Centre for Higher Education Studies at University of Johannesburg, suggests that these seemingly arbitrary weightings have the potential to distort a university’s priorities. As Essop points outs, a university may, for instance, receive a major research grant thus boosting its research income and aiding it to climb up in the rankings. “But it tells us nothing about the quality of research at that institution,” he writes. He adds that all institutions are striving to be more research-intensive – regardless of their context, capacity and resources – and that the main stumbling block towards this is creating “a differentiated system that’s needed to address South Africa’s knowledge and skills needs”.

The performance of African universities must be read in the context of the social, political and economic realities on the continent. Many academic achievements were realised in the face of daunting challenges that top-ranking western universities will likely never encounter.

Furthermore, Professor Garth Stevens, acting dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand, states that these rankings lead to an undifferentiated research terrain. "With university collaboration an important strategy for achieving global competitiveness, many universities look to these ranking to decide which partnerships to pursue,” Stevens says. “Everyone wants to partner with an institution that has been ranked higher than itself. Instead of collaboration across a differentiated system, there is competition for partnerships among similar institutions."

Nuances in Africa’s education system

Quality of teaching accounts for 30% of the score and is calculated based on a reputational survey, amount of teaching resources available and student-teacher ratio. This too is problematic as it is not based, as one might imagine, on graduation percentages or students’ academic performance. At the same time, it is also important to make a distinction between private and public universities, particularly in the African context.

The 2019 THE Rankings do not, for example, differentiate between the federally-funded University of Ibadan and the privately-funded Convenant University, both in Nigeria and both of which ranked in the 601-800 range. And yet dynamics within these two institutions, including funding flows, are highly likely differ. In fact, private universities tend to dominate these global rankings, even as many African states invest heavily in public tertiary education with education yet seen as a viable and concrete response to national development. “The real question should be how well public institutions are doing in regards to providing a public good, not a private good,” opines Professor Stevens.

The performance of African universities must be read in the context of the social, political and economic realities on the continent. Many academic achievements were realised in the face of daunting challenges that top-ranking western universities will likely never encounter. South African universities, nine of which made it into the 2019 ranking, did so in the aftermath of the Fees Must Fall movement and an unexpected policy decision for free tertiary education. Similarly, the University of Nairobi (ranked 1000+) managed to secure a place despite consistent security and terrorism threats in the country, while Uganda’s Makerere University (ranked 501-600) has endured several periods of severe unrest in the past few years.

Nevertheless, Dr Patrick Mbyindo, director of research at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya, sees these rankings as presenting a standard of quality that African institutions can aim for. “Rankings are not perfect and cannot capture all a university offers, but they do offer pointers to what works for a great number of universities and perhaps what African universities should focus on,” he notes. “For example, internationalisation of the student body is crucial to developing individuals that [sic] are able to handle different world views and can assist in addressing issues of non-tolerance.” International outlook, however, only accounts for 7.5% of a university’s total score in the rankings.

Rankings should be one of the many opportunities to reflect on how a university is performing. However, they should not replace vigorous forms of evaluation. The latter would take into account university dynamics, complexities and nuances that a relatively crude ranking system, which reduces processes to a mere number, fails to do. “As a university leader, I believe that education institutions around the world can benefit from reassessing and rethinking the campus environment, how and what we teach, and how we measure excellence,” introspected UCT Vice Chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, in an article which first appeared on the THE blog. “Such a re-examination is necessary for higher education to be sustainable and relevant in our rapidly globalising, technologically focused environment.”

(Main image: PeopleImages/Getty)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.