Which is South Africa’s top university? Is it UCT or Wits? It depends who you ask, when you ask and which ranking system you use.
Universities slide up and down the rankings from one year to the next and with more than 30 such systems in place, take your pick.
And yet the question is real for we live in a competitive society and a competitive world.
Parents want to know which university is the best for their child or which law school offers the best legal education.
Alumni take great pride in the institutions where they studied and want to know if their university is still among the best.
Students like to brag among their peers that their university is topranked in the country, on the continent and in the world.
So as much as university managers might say, “we don’t really care about rankings”, all the top South African universities work very hard behind the scenes to position themselves favourably on the ShangaiRanking Academic Ranking of World Universities or the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings or even the online Webometrics Ranking of World Universities, which measures the web presence (web content, density, impact and visibility) of universities.
These global rankings were the subject of the first presidential roundtable of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) in which four leading higher education scholars shared their assessment of the value of ranking systems in general and for South Africa/Africa in particular.
The problem, argued Professor Robert Tijssen, from Leiden University, is that the designers of the ranking system often struggle to answer the question about purposes. Why is this being done in the first place?
Professor Lis Lange, of UCT, had a blunt answer: rankings are simply one part of the new global system of knowledge production which has built a formidable industry around the ranking business.
And yet, as Professor Zeblon Vilikazi, of Wits, argued, university leaders invest in this industry with the result that “rankings are here to stay, whether we like it or not”.
Perhaps the most inventive work on rankings in Africa has been led by Professor Nico Cloete, of CHET (Centre for Higher Education Transformation) in Cape Town.
His approach is more developmental and seeks to rank African universities in relation to each other on metrics that can direct internal resources and advance growth (such as the number of staff with doctorates).
The results are not surprising: South Africa’s universities dominate the continental rankings especially in relation to the sheer volume of research publications.
But the question could, of course, be asked: what is the point of international rankings if not to measure yourself against the best in the world?
To use a sporting comparison, there would be no point in measuring South African cricket against Zimbabwe or Kenya; a more valid comparison is against India (a sore point given the current ODI series), Australia and England.
In other words, you never really know how good you are until you are ranked against the best. Which brings us back to purposes. My own view is that rankings can reveal areas in which a university can grow and improve on its scholarly work.
For example, ranking criteria might show that too many academics in African universities publish in low-quality journals with weak peer-review systems and therefore produce knowledge of limited scientific or social value.
Clearly the next step then is to strengthen the capacity of these universities to produce top quality scholars who publish in learned journals of significance to science and society.
But ranking for the sake of claiming bragging rights or boosting national egos is a problem, for then the practice of rank-ordering universities serves simply as a hurtful reminder of the academic inequities embedded in the global system of knowledge production.
In other words, a ranking that pits Harvard University, whose private endowment of $35.76-billion (R422.7-billion) far exceeds the national budgets of most African countries, against Makerere University, is patently unfair.
It glorifies Harvard and humiliates Makerere simply on the basis of the massive advantage of resources held by the Cambridge, Massachusetts, university.
As I argued in the ASSAf roundtable discussions, it’s as if Europe (or the West for that matter) never underdeveloped Africa – in the terms of the Guyanese historian, Walter Rodney.
That said, playing the victim in the face of these very influential and global ranking systems will leave South Africa and Africa marooned on their academic islands of mediocrity.
The best response is to ask the practical question: how can African institutions leverage the ranking system in ways that strengthen our universities?
What are the fields in which we have strength (like tropical medicine at Makerere or HIV/Aids research at UKZN) that must be extended, and areas in which much work needs to be done to raise the quality of research or teaching? I advise parents to relax. There really is little difference in quality between a degree from UCT or Wits or Stellenbosch or Pretoria and other leading South African universities.
You may want to think of other criteria not well-captured in the global rankings: which university will teach my child well, offer adequate personal security and instil a sense of compassion for those on the underside of history.
There are no rankings that measure these vital attributes of a 21st century graduate.