3 August 2010

South Africa: Rankings Game Puts Academia in Boxes


Johannesburg — A FEW years ago I was asked to rank SA's high schools. I declined, saying there was no way it could be done fairly. I find now that my decision was well-founded, and that my gut reaction to the request was right on the button.

Rankings are, however, big business. SA, thankfully, has not really fallen into this trap at school level, but our universities are ranked (sometimes without their actively participating in the ranking process) by ranking agencies such as Quacquarelli-Symonds, Times Higher Education and Shanghai Jiaotung University.

It is at this level - the growing international competition between universities - that the rankings game rakes in cash.

Perhaps the most visible rankings race in SA is the one in which our business schools participate - willingly or unwillingly. The most well known in SA are the annual rankings by the UK's Financial Times newspaper.

The argument for business school rankings is, however, less problematic than general university rankings. For one, business schools all do roughly the same thing.

But, everything I have read so far has both informed and reinforced my belief that rankings are deeply problematic for various reasons.

An argument against rankings is well articulated by Prof Geoffrey Boulton, professor emeritus and former vice-principal of the University of Edinburgh, in a recent paper he wrote on behalf of the League of European Research Universities. Boulton says the two fundamental problems with rankings systems are that different universities fulfil different roles, while rankings systems favour a certain type of university; and that most ranking systems try to capture characteristics that cannot be measured directly, requiring indirect proxies that are of questionable worth.

The rankings look at measurable thing such as student-staff ratios and annual expenditure on books and other resources.

But, says Boulton in an interview with University World News, "in the experience of many of us that doesn't get close to the underlying reality of a really good educational environment. The thing you can't measure, of course, is the ethos, the effort."

I believe that the unquestioning acceptance of our push-button lifestyle has opened up a milieu in which too many people accept university rankings without questioning their validity. People like to be able to rank everything - it plays to the growing modern need for instant information.

One of the most damning criticisms of international university rankings is that they have perpetuated a homogenous view of what a university is.

Worse, in just accepting rankings as part of modern life, we do not question the milieu in which we live. That is dangerous.

Also, universities are adept at "playing the game" - just to up their ranking score.

The world is at a juncture where we have a greater chance than usual to shape our future. Certain fundamental beliefs about the way in which we live, order our lives and order the lives of others less fortunate than ourselves, have been shaken. We have a duty to, at the very least, think hard about what we want the future to be.

While the belief held by ranking's proponents - that competition is healthy - is well founded, the fact that the rankings race has been found by academics to be pushing universities into fitting into one particular box is enormously worrying. So is the fact that it means universities that do not teach and publish in English are automatically on the back foot in the rankings race.

That academics say that the rise of rankings is part of a growing "corporatisation" of the academic world is unsettling. It takes us away from what universities used to be - places of collegiate collaboration, where the quest for knowledge and understanding supersedes all else.

But change is not always bad, and perhaps the world no longer wants this type of education institution. So what do we want? Do we want universities to continue on their new trajectory - away from being collegiate hubs driven by teaching, research and service? Do we want them to be businesses driven by the desire for economic revenue? The answer is important.

Blaine is education editor.

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