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Rankings Driving Change as Universities Learn to ‘Play The Game’

  • In General
  • 10 Nov 2017 - 7:17pm
  • By Mark Wamai
  • 4,733
Participants in the Public Forum on Ranking and Internationalization in Higher Education in a group photo, 8th November 2017, Makerere University, Kampala Uganda

The ranking of universities is a trend that has brought a lot of change to the global higher education sector. News headlines are seasonally dominated by “the rankings” as universities wait with bated breath to see if they have gained a slot, maintained or slipped up in position on the league tables. Each ranking presents its own unique methodology and matrices, whose weighting criteria is subject to change. This often rubs some participating institutions the wrong way but be that as it may, rankings are here to stay and most institutions that hitherto ignored them are slowly learning to pay attention.

At Makerere University, rankings have attracted and continue to attract their fair share of recognition as well as criticism. To help create a platform to share these varying views, the College of Education and External Studies (CEES) organised a Public Forum in the Main Hall on Wednesday, 8th November 2017. Held under the theme “Ranking and Internationalisation in Higher Education-New Developments and Implications for African Universities” the forum brought together academic and administrative staff from Makerere and other Universities based in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania and Germany.

In his remarks, the Acting Deputy Vice Chancellor (Finance and Administration)-Prof. William Bazeyo who represented the Vice Chancellor-Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe commended CEES for choosing a theme that sought to address the impact of rankings on the visibility of Universities.

He noted that whereas most rankings employ different methodologies, development partners always prefer highly ranked institutions over their lower ranking compatriots when it comes to grants disbursement. “They too want to put their money where they will be seen; partners are looking to work with those they can be identified with” remarked Prof. Bazeyo.

Prof. Bazeyo thanked development partners from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences and the Centre for Higher Education Development (CHE) Germany for sponsoring the forum. “I urge the African teams that have been invited to this forum to subject yourself to these rankings, although you must prepare. As leaders of African Institutions, we must motivate ourselves to be that institution that people want to go to” he advised.

“How can you rank Makerere University which was incepted in 1922 in the same league with Kyambogo University incepted in 2003?” questioned the day’s emcee Dr. Anthony Mugagga Muwagga as he sought to put the topic in perspective. “Some say ranking is a Euro-based concept but is the University entirely and African concept?” Dr. Mugagga continued to probe. He nevertheless noted that as players in the global academic arena, African universities were subject to a lot of evaluation and should therefore do their best to comply and thereafter compete.

L-R: Dr. David Onen, Dr. Ronald Bisaso and Dr. Betty Ezati during presentations at the Public Forum on Higher Education

“Ranking is part of our world today and we need to learn how to work with it,” remarked Dr. Betty Ezati as she presented on the topic Balancing Global pressure and local demand: The dilemma of ranking for Ugandan Universities.

She noted that the Ugandan Higher Education sector is split into the two distinct subsectors of Universities and Tertiary institutions, with a total enrolment of 250,000 students. Whereas this enrollment is low compared to international and regional standards, league tables presented by the rankings had helped to attract students to those institutions which ranked higher, led to the growth of their student populations and inevitably helped distinguish those that paid more attention to quality assurance.

Dr. Ezati however observed that Ugandan universities still faced the dilemma of either focusing on the core function of teaching the ever growing university enrollment or cutting down on admissions to concentrate on research which is often prioritized by rankings. “60% of our population might be below the age of 18 and most students admitted are underprepared and so we have to teach more. Our universities face a big dilemma” she said.

African universities are also subject to slow internet connectivity and obsolete ICT infrastructure, a factor that pits them disadvantageously with their better facilitated American, Asian, Australian and European counterparts. Nevertheless, allocations to research, infrastructure development and innovation are on the steady increase as rankings gain more recognition by African Governments.

Tackling the question Do rankings drive change? Prof. Dr. Frank Ziegele from the Centre of Higher Education (CHE), Germany argued that league tables do have impact on four levels namely; Policy, Strategy & Management of Institutions, Industrial behavior & Academia and Student demand. He cited countries such as Russia, China and Malaysia that had instituted policies that invested a lot of finances in key universities to turn them into world class institutions. Others such as Denmark had merged several small institutions into large multidisciplinary universities.

Prof. Ziegele nevertheless decried these practices because funding of key universities was at the expense of the smaller regional ones, leading to stratified systems that frustrated professors in “second class” universities. He further lamented the rankings’ consideration of only publications that make it to high quality peer reviewed journals which prioritize Medicine and Natural Sciences at the expense of the humanities and applied sciences.

Dr. Steven Heimlich (R) reiterated DAAD's commitment to supporting Higher Education, while Prof. Dr. Peter Meyer (2nd R) noted that Visibility was a concern for all universities around the globe. Pror. Dr. Frank Ziegele-CHE shared on the need for multidimensional ranking.

“Sometimes league tables do not lead to increase in performance but to more intelligence, how to play the game; how to use tricks to raise your position. For instance German universities have a large project running which has the main focus of making professors mention the right affiliation in their publications. So we invest a lot in playing the game” shared Prof. Ziegele.

He noted that whereas league tables had the advantage of creating competition and enhancing public awareness, most rankings were unfair to non-English speaking countries like Germany, France and often employed random weighting techniques. “We all know that if you change the weights, you can make universities move up and down the league tables” said Prof. Ziegele, further adding “one specific type of university is made the gold standard for all universities but the truth is that they are different and this damaging!”

As a way forward Prof. Ziegele proposed that rankings should be multidimensional and develop a model such as the European Commission funded U-Multirank. U-Multirank is an independent ranking where universities can populate the database with information on aspects of research, teaching and learning, international orientation, knowledge transfer and regional engagement. These are then weighted according to international standards and the resulting performance profiles can then be used by universities to develop specific strategies to improve on those aspects.

The day’s presentations were split into two sessions chaired by Dr. David Onen from the East African School of Higher Educational Studies and Development (EASHESD), who noted that whereas there are several programmes on Primary and Secondary school education and management, few tackled higher education leadership. “Many people have learnt about the higher education system in an ad hoc manner. A forum like this is an opportunity to learn more about the higher education system and we therefore thank the organizers” he said.

The interactive sessions that followed the presentations were charged as participants, citing the random methodologies employed by global rankings, called for the institution of a purely African edition with its own unique parameters and indices backed by South-South partnerships.

Responding to some of the comments and questions, the Dean EASHESD-Dr. Ronald Bisaso noted that whereas participants were justified in calling for a purely African ranking, this would be in total disregard of the Anglophone and Francophone foundations of most institutions.

Dr. Pius Achange-NCHE (L) and Dr. Vincent Ssembatya-Director QAD noted that there was no need for a purely African ranking in the global arena

“Issues to do with quality assurance are most criticised when it comes to rankings. We all want to be visible, but limited ICT infrastructure and our high youth populations are putting pressure on us and yet we want to develop a globally compliant graduate who is relevant to our community” assessed Dr. Bisaso, before adding “Balancing this is one of the conversations that should gain a lot of currency and we should carefully navigate our way so that our students attain both attributes.”

Providing information on the existence of South-South collaborations, the Quality Assurance Director-Dr. Vincent Ssembatya noted that the Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET), South Africa came up with a consortium of flagship universities under the banner of being “research-led” in an experiment with seven other countries including; Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda.

“They developed an analytical framework where they are dissecting the missions of these universities to come up with relevant indicators for Africa starting with some universities. Of course there must be some commonalities between these universities that have to be compliant to this framework. I therefore wanted to mention that it has been a concern and hopefully, it will keep on moving forward” shared Dr. Ssembatya.

He nevertheless emphasized the need for African universities to prioritise data collection for all their functions so as to feed into user-driven rankings such as U-Multirank. He also noted that African universities shouldn’t ignore rankings because of their random methodologies but rather embrace them especially as globalisation becomes more of a reality.

Dr. Pius Achanga from the National Council for Higher Education (NHCE) while quoting ancient Greek philosopher Socrates opined that the unexamined life is not worth living. He emphasized that the existing rankings help universities to evaluate the contexts in which they teach, conduct research and offer services to the community and as such, there was no need for a purely African ranking. “There ought to be relevance in terms of the indicators and the methodologies that we are evaluating, rigour in terms of determining graduates’ skills versus the industrial standard as well as plausibility and acceptability in the context of what this system is testing, its jurisdiction and who gives them the authority” he shared.

Closing the half-day Public Forum, the Deputy Principal, CEES, Dr. Paul Muyinda Birevu noted that the event had presented CEES and its partners with an opportunity to share ideas on the relatively new phenomenon of ranking and the pressure that it was exerting on functions like research, teaching and learning. He challenged African institutions to work around all the challenges that impeded their influence on the global arena.

Some of the participants from Universities based in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania and Germany at the half-day Public Forum, 8th November 2017, Makerere University, Kampala Uganda

“For example in the Department of Open and Distance Learning, we have been able to influence certain spheres such as mobile learning. It is also important to note that Mobile Money transfer also originated in Africa! All we need to do therefore is clean up our house and go on to influence the world” concluded Dr. Muyinda.

Article by Public Relations Office

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