Leading academics to discuss University rankings and measurements

Leading academics from various institutions in South Africa will debate international rankings and explore what can and cannot be measured in Universities, and where the ‘obsession’ with measurement comes when they participate in a public panel debate on Monday night as part of Rhodes University’s Education Department’s ‘Education Dialogues’.

Panelists include Dr Saleem Badat, Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University; Professor Lesley Le Grange, Deputy-Dean (Research), Faculty of Education, Stellenbosch University; Professor Murthee Maistry, Head of Social Science Education, UKZN; and Professor Heila Lotz-Sisitka, Murray & Roberts Chair of Environmental Education and Sustainability, Rhodes University.

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, nor is it peculiar to the higher education sector.

The panelists will examine the surge in interest in international ranking systems and what effect they might have on educational practices. According to the panel debate chair, Professor Sioux McKenna, the issue of rankings has grown significantly in the last decade or two.

“Perhaps this is due to broader shifts in our understanding of the role of the university in society and the increasingly common perception that education is a product, and therefore an informed customer should select the best provider of that product?” Prof McKenna said.

Whatever the reasons, it is clear that university rankings have become a central concern. “The results of ranking systems are front page news in many countries and universities invest a great deal of time and money to improve their position on these lists,” she said.

She explained that in South Africa generally, less attention has been paid to these systems - perhaps because South African universities barely feature or perhaps because there are more crucial issues to be addressed than these kinds of performance metrics.

However they seem to have taken hold here too now and a few public universities have set ranking targets and begun to actively engage in practices that are recognised and rewarded by the rankings system.

According to Prof McKenna there are at least three fundamental problems with these systems: one is that there is an assumption that a number of measurable items that are quantified and averaged can stand as a proxy for quality; the second is that the weighting of the items is a subjective matter, and slight shifts in the weighting have a major impact in the ranking raising real questions about validity; and the third is that there are a great many issues that should be of considerable concern to universities that are immeasurable- and that these issues will be neglected in the race for improved ranking.

The panel starts at 5pm on Monday 15 July in the Council Chambers.

By Sarah-Jane Bradfield