University leaders across the country are faced with a conundrum every year – to participate in global ranking systems, or not, in a context where the playing fields are grossly uneven. Academics remain divided on this matter.

The same could be asked of whether developing countries should be participating in an event like the FIFA Football World Cup where it is a foregone conclusion that the winner will emanate from a list of about 10 countries. Some sports lovers will argue that participation in the World Cup helps to improve the overall level of football in the country. Studies have shown that when athletes have the opportunity to participate globally, they are more successful as they compete at international standards. Others will argue that some countries with a total population of less than 5 million outperform others. Yet, there are no calls for developing nations to boycott the World Cup?

In a similar vein, I argue that universities from developing nations should participate with developed nations in global ranking systems, despite universities in developing countries being hugely disadvantaged. Knowledge production and dissemination is an international collaborative and all regions of the world have a role to play in making knowledge accessible and useful to humanity. Developing countries might not have the economic and academic power to sustain world-class universities, so they must build alliances, regionally and internationally to build strength in selected fields. This allows them to participate in global knowledge creation even if it does not guarantee a top spot in the rankings.

The mandate of a university system in any country is quite varied. It includes teaching, research, the creation and dissemination of new knowledge and community engagement. However, global rankings are dominated by research-intensive universities.

How do rankings work?

There are about 25 000 universities worldwide, and the rankings tend to focus only on the top 500 in the world. Most international rankings focus on indicators that measure the research output of universities, so that implies that to be in the Top 500, a University has to be research-intensive. There are four key rankings (ARWU, THES, QS and CWUR), all dominated by major research universities in the US. Only around 100 of the Top 500 universities are located in the global South.

Some of the rankings have attempted to measure the other two functions of universities, namely, teaching and community engagement, but these are measured by proxies which have only indirect links to these functions. Others have tried to employ some sort of reputational analysis, but these have been given disproportional importance. The impact of universities on society is increasingly becoming an important measure.

There are many problems with the subjective measures employed by these rankings agencies, for example, peer reviews tend to favour the developed world, two of the four rankings are conducted without any data being submitted by the institutions, sometimes relying on the internet or estimates to fill in the gaps. However, this type of data only makes up a small percentage of the overall score. The majority of the score is made up by publication counts, citation counts, and survey scores which are not obtained from institutions.

The bottom line is that research universities in developing countries will be ranked whether they agree to participate or not. If they boycott, they are ranked anyway without participating in the provision of data, which could be even more detrimental. They thus have no choice but to actively participate in these rankings.

The quality of a research university depends to a large extent on the state of development of the country in which it is located including the economy, the country’s scientific readiness and the investment made into higher education. In many of the developed nations, the top research universities are focused primarily on postgraduate programmes, while in developing countries, even the leading research universities have a predominant focus on undergraduate programmes. Research universities in developed countries are focused on creative individual research while those in developing countries are focused on collaborative research. Global rankings are also biased towards medicine and the natural sciences because of their publishing regiment.

In the US there are approximately 220 research universities out of a total of about 2 500 post-secondary institutions (about 9%). In the UK, the Russel Group makes up about 6% (24 research universities out of about 400 post-secondary institutions). If we applied similar proportions to South Africa, then about 5 or 6 universities should be research-intensive (5 out of 80 post-secondary institutions), which I believe should be adequately resourced to compete globally, but to act locally.

In South Africa, research universities are at risk of being financially penalised by the state that argues that historically disadvantaged institutions need to be better funded. The result will be that over time, the research universities will not have the resources to compete internationally and will gradually fall off the globally ranked list. At the same time, countries like Russia and China are investing heavily in higher education, which is resulting in these universities catapulting up the rankings.

Ranking tables are very influential proxies for quality, and governments, corporates, funding agencies and highly ranked institutions are increasingly using ranking data to guide collaboration efforts.

It is imperative for a country like South Africa to adopt a differentiated university education system in order to remain a global knowledge leader, a practice replicated in highly industrialised countries around the world. This would mean that five or six universities are recognised as research-intensive universities, and are funded accordingly, with the remainder focused on producing professional graduates and skills for the workplace. Vocational colleges have a major role to play in this sector as well.

If the mission of a university is composed of three parts: teaching, research and engagement, and the academic environment is added into this mix, a matrix like the one shown alongside develops. Generally, new universities and those without the requisite infrastructure would focus on the upper two quadrants. Established universities and those with the requisite infrastructure would concentrate on the bottom two quadrants.

In a well-functioning higher education system, about 70% of higher education institutions would be operating in the top left quadrant, with about 10% in each of the other quadrants. Using this as a guide, about 21 universities should be operating in the top two quadrants and five in the bottom two quadrants. All research universities should then be linked with a group of teaching universities to create micro-systems to ensure that academic research informs teaching and vice-versa. The research universities could then enter into articulation agreements with their affiliated universities that would allow the best graduates from the teaching universities direct entry to postgraduate studies at the research university.

There is a need for a differentiated higher education system in South Africa that ensures that research-intensive universities are adequately funded to compete in the global knowledge creation economy. There is a need for global ranking systems to be more cognisant of the contextual realities of developing countries. However, South African universities have little choice but to participate in global ranking systems or risk being ranked anyway based on poor data and no input.

Dr Mahomed Moolla is the Head of Strategy Partnerships at the University of the Witwatersrand. 

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