Rankings should not distract from national priorities

Wednesday 4 May 2016

The value of university rankings in helping nations develop their higher education systems was debated in a passionate session at Going Global

Dr Blade Nzimande, MP, Minister for Higher Education and Training, South Africa, told a packed room that rankings were a reality, and impossible to ignore. However, he expressed concerns that there was a danger to view and use rankings in isolation of the context in which individual universities operate. “We must aim to achieve excellence in South African universities. But we must achieve excellence in a way that is good for the developmental priorities of our country. We achieve excellence by seeking solutions to the challenges that face a developing country”

Phil Baty, Editor of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, said that rankings provided the tools to help universities act and compete on the world stage, and this in turn enabled the long-term development of a continental-wide infrastructure for learning and research. “Africa has many pressing priorities that current global, research-focused university rankings do not address. But acting on these challenges while also nurturing a necessarily select group of world-class, globally focused universities need not be mutually exclusive.”

“I’m a great believer in the importance of diversity in higher education systems: put simply, there is no one single correct model of excellence. And the existing world university rankings are, I would argue, in harmony with the African Union’s Agenda 2063 programme” Baty said.

Dr Gerald Ouma, Director, Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET), University of Pretoria, South Africa, agreed that rankings try to develop excellence. He said, “But the big question is what kind of excellence? Do we have a one size fits all definition of excellence? Excellence cannot be understood in isolation, it has to be understood in the context of the countries where the university operates.”

Prof. Ellen Hazelkorn, Policy Advisor, Higher Education Authority and Director, Higher Education Policy Research Unit, Ireland, told delegates that there was no doubt that in a globalised world, rankings mattered. But Prof Hazelkorn stressed to the audience, “The focus needs to be on the overall system – what are you trying to achieve? Why would you use indicators set by someone else to determine your national priorities? You must focus on what is meaningful, rather than just focus on counting what is accessible.”

“The big concern with rankings is when they become a policy driver, from what is essentially a report card on disparities of wealth…As a benchmarking tool, rankings are fine. As a policy driver, [rankings are] a bad idea. We should be looking at building world class systems of higher education, not world class universities.” Prof Hazelkorn added.