First on the list or rank outsider? Thinking about world ranking systems in HigherEd.

One of the most interesting conversations I witnessed at Doc Week at Rhodes was around the issue of world Higher Education (HE) rankings. There were four panelists sharing their views, including Dr. Badat, the Vice Chancellor of Rhodes, who was very vociferous in his belief of the evils of ranking systems like the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. He used words like “collude”, “dubious”, “insidious”, “poison” – strong and powerful language indeed. 

My initial response to this (being something of a  UCT snob) was, “Well… obviously you’re not going to like the ranking system if you don’t get onto it!” But this argument was blown out the water when Dr. Badat said that Rhodes has actively refused to be part of any world ranking system.

I do understand his concerns. Here are some of the points he raised as I understand them:

  • International ranking systems reward certain aspects of HE, not others. There’s a disproportionate focus on research output in accredited journals (in English) and none on issues of social justice or values.
  • Buying into a ranking system means participating in a competitive discourse with other universities, local and global. Is this a productive use of resources?
  • Additionally, does South Africa need 23 “world class” universities? In this country we face a unique mix of educational challenges and finding a HE response to these requires a nuanced approach.
  • Ranking systems don’t take any context (political, social, historical) into consideration. They’re fundamentally based on a mathematical equation. Does it make sense to compare universities in America with universities in South Africa?
  • In striving to thrive on these world ranking lists, universities in South Africa are professing a desire to be like universities in the North and the West. There’s modeling, imitation and an “everything’s better overseas” attitude. What about our own local successes?

Dr. Badat’s arguments are valid and convincing. However, what wasn’t mentioned at all in his discussion is the student body.

There’s an undeniable advantage for students graduating from prestigious, world-renowned universities. It just sounds more impressive. Yes, this is a construct, but with competition for jobs and the current local/global workplace, students who’ve graduated from highly ranked universities will have an advantage when entering the workplace. 

We academics can complain about this, and moan about how this is driven by evil neo-liberal values, but are certain institutions doing a disservice to the people who are most affected by their decision whether to play the game or not – the students?

And while resistance to this system may be based on protest against an external ranking structure being imposed onto an institution, isn’t it similarly problematic to impose the refusal of this system on students? While Dr. Badat makes a powerful argument, when a Rhodes graduate applies for a job, will she have the language and the conviction to explain to a potential employer why she’s a better pick then the student from a highly ranked university? If so, then Rhodes is doing something very right. 

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