“I have a confession. The rankings of the world’s top universities that my magazine has been publishing for the past six years, and which have attracted enormous global attention, are not good enough,” admits Phil Baty, editor of the Times Higher Education (THE) world university rankings.

Baty made this confession in 2010 after THE ended its world university rankings partnership with Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) over several disputes regarding the methodology used at the time. These two ranking systems, along with the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), form part of the three most influential ranking systems in the world. All three organisations release data containing information about universities on an annual basis.

Richard Holmes, a lecturer at Universiti Teknologi MARA in Malaysia, accuses ARWU of mainly focusing on the natural sciences and not including the social sciences or humanities when conducting the required research for placement on its list.

This begs the question: if the three most powerful ranking systems have been exposed for passing inaccurate information as factual, whom do we trust? Why should we still take these lists seriously, especially after Baty went public with the fact that the methodologies he endorsed while collaborating with QS on their world university rankings “had serious weaknesses”?

“We always knew that our rankings had their limitations. No ranking can be definitive. No list of the strongest universities can capture all the intangible [and] life-changing work that universities undertake,” Baty said.

Perdeby spoke to Professor SG Burton, the University of Pretoria’s vice-principal of research and postgraduate education, concerning the matter: “[UP] certainly pays attention to the international ranking systems and our position within them. In line with our strategic plan, UP 2025, we have set ourselves the goals of being a leading research intensive university in Africa, and of strengthening our international profile.”

Deputy vice-chancellor and head of Humanities at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), Professor Cheryl Potgieter, said that, “There is no doubt that when parents, students and prospective employees explore where to register or invest their resources, they are increasingly turning to the ranked status of a university.” She added that, “It is common to hear parents and students say: ‘but I read the university is on the top 200/400 list’.”

Prof. Burton reiterates Prof. Potgieter’s statement, adding, “Taken together, the ranking systems use a comprehensive set of indicators and criteria to position universities relative to each other internationally, and keeping in mind that research and higher education are essentially global in nature, we recognise that our international positioning is relevant to all the university’s stakeholders, including prospective students.”

The Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET) in South Africa published a report in 2010 in which it mentions that South African rankings of universities are mostly dependent on international data since there is no local system in place. CHET has, however, identified three different university “clusters” in SA, wherein universities are grouped according to function. “The red cluster constitutes the top research-intensive universities, green the middle, and blue scoring the lowest,” states the report. The University of Cape Town (UCT), the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), Stellenbosch University (SU), Rhodes University (RU) and UP are found in the red cluster, while the University of the Free State (UFS), the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and UKZN are amongst those in the green cluster. The blue cluster consists mainly of universities of technology. These include Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), Vaal University of Technology (VUT) and Durban University of Technology (DUT).

THE recently released its current list of the world’s top 400 universities for the year 2012–2013. The only universities in Africa to make the list are UCT, ranked at number 113; Wits, ranked in the range 226–250; SU, ranked between the numbers 251–275; and lastly UKZN, placed in the range 351–400. According to THE, it would be unfair to give exact positions at the end of the list and therefore only a range is made available to the public.

Meanwhile, QS’s world university rankings for 2012–2013 differs in its overall scores. UCT is placed at number 154, Wits at 363, SU at 401, UP at 501 and UKZN at number 551.

This difference in rankings is not only evident when examining South African universities, as Andrew Marszal, digital education editor for The Telegraph, writes: “Two different university world rankings showed wildly variable results for UK universities [last year] – so which one should we trust?” Marszal reiterates the comments made two years earlier by Baty, saying that, “The simple truth is that there is no such thing as a definitive table.”

“[O]ne must remember that the different ranking systems use rather different sets of indicators and no single ranking should be taken as an absolute,” adds Prof. Burton.

Furthermore, the European Commission has criticised all three of these ranking systems (and others) for allegedly “favour[ing] Anglo-Saxon higher education institutions”. A Hungarian study conducted from 2000 to 2009, eventually published in 2011, argues that these rankings place a great deal of importance on citations. This is problematic as it undermines universities that do not use English as their first or primary language. Publications and records in any other language are harder to find and are therefore disregarded.

However, some institutions have supported the use of international ranking lists. Research published by the Institute for Higher Education Policy in the USA found that they “can encourage [academic] institutions to participate in broader national and international discussions,” as well as encourage research partnerships and collaborations. The possibility of student and faculty exchange programmes are also more probable as it could boost a university’s ranking position because it allows for more criteria (used in ranking systems) to be met.

Professor Jan Botha, senior director of SU’s institutional research and planning, told Perdeby that “‘paying attention’ to our position on some of the ranking lists does not mean that we have developed or adapted any of our strategic goals with the primary purpose of improving our position on any of the ranking lists. We do not do that. If good performances in our chosen goals lead to an improved position on the ranking lists, it is noted as a side-effect.”

In 2012, UCT released a statement in which the university said that it “is mindful of the criticisms and debate surrounding ranking methods”, that it is happy with its consistency and that it will “continue to strive for excellence in academic endeavours as well as contribution to society as a whole”.

It is likely that the discussion surrounding these ranking lists is set to continue for years to come. When it comes to choosing a university to further your tertiary education, perhaps it is better to consider your own preferences, circumstances and personal goals instead of allowing your choice to be dictated by numbers.

Illustration: Talifhani Mathode

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