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Rhodes University not partaking in international rankings

Date Released: Tue, 23 July 2013 11:59 +0200

Examining the surge in interest in international ranking systems Deputy-Dean (Research), Faculty of Education, Stellenbosch University, Prof Lesley Le Grange argued that these shifts are reflective of Professor Jon McKenzie’s ‘age of performance’ that characterises the 21st century in which performativity is the main focus of many institutions.

Unlike Britain which assesses departments, Prof Le Grange said South Africa generally ranks academics and universities according to various criteria. As such, there has been a shift in the understanding of technical validity, he said.

“We are not asking what the purpose of education is or what quality education is. Instead the discourses have shifted from talking about issues of value to vacuity, such as excellence and quantity,” said Prof Le Grange.

Such tendencies are a result of the ideological approach that underpins the international ranking system Prof Murthee Maistry, Head of Social Science Education, UKZN, explained, emphasising the competitive and neo-liberal influence of such an approach.

“These ideologies are the result of the ideological direction the university chooses and illuminates the infatuation involved in such a short term approach,” said Prof Maistry.

According to Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor, Dr Saleem Badat, the strategic decision for Rhodes University not to partake in any international rankings is reflective of the university’s efforts to meet the real needs of the (South) African education sector without engaging in homogenous attempts at excellence.

“Global international rankings suffer from weaknesses in data, contain arbitrary processes and indexes, and undermine validity. They present Western, North American universities as the pinnacles of education ideals,” he said, referring to such ideals as ‘world class universities’.

Such a concept did not exist until recently, Dr Badat said, emphasising that “it should not be assumed that creating world class universities will contribute to economic development. Plonking the Western model in some societies does not mean they will play the same role as Oxford, MIT and other highly regarded institutions.”

Dr Badat said that instead of aspiring to this western educational ideal, (South) African universities should concentrate on establishing themselves in different ways with different strengths.

“Instead of valuing horizontal continuum…the world class university has the perverse effect of privileging horizontal hierarchies. We need to concentrate on the specific national realities of the global south that require differentiated and diverse institutions, not universities of homogeneity and isomorphism. There is no sense in all our universities competing for the same objectives despite their different needs, passions, goals and capabilities,” he said.

According to the speakers, international ranking systems are a growing industry in the university sector with a number of institutions investing a great deal of time and money into improving their positions on the QS, the ARWU, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and others. This growth in the use of performance metrics is not restricted to rankings.

The panel was hosted by Rhodes University’s Education Department as part of its ‘Education Dialogues’.

Panelists included Dr Badat, Professor Le Grange, Professor Maistry, and Professor Heila Lotz-Sisitka, Murray & Roberts Chair of Environmental Education and Sustainability, Rhodes University.

By Sarah-Jane Bradfield

Photo by Desiree Schirlinger