THE modern university has a long and complex history that is characterised, among others, by shifts in the understanding of the idea of the university; from an institution that was mainly concerned with elite reproduction to one that is now generally viewed as an engine of development.
While universities generally have common missions, mainly teaching and research, they are different from each other in many respects, arising from their different histories, and the socio-political and economic contexts within which they operate.
For especially public universities, their overarching objective should be to seek to become institutions that are engaged with their broader societies and operate on the basis of the public good; institutions that foster mutually beneficial interactions with their communities and contribute to the advancement of these communities, that impact society meaningfully, are socially responsive and contribute to social and economic development.
For South Africa, as the case is with other countries, its developmental challenges are so broad and diverse that not a single university or university type, can address them fully. In this context, institutional differentiation and diversity are necessary pre-requisites for universities to be able to address society’s multiple challenges.
Linked to the debate on the idea of the university and its role in society, is the emergence of university ranking systems. These rankings generally reify, valorise, and legitimise universalistic views of the university, its role and relationship with society. By classifying and positioning universities using particular “gold” standards, rankings essentially seek to homogenise universities.
They fail to understand the different roles that individual institutions play within their societies. Why should universities pursue a common “gold” standard, when they have different missions, different capacities, and are confronted with varying developmental imperatives?
An inherent contradiction of the ranking systems is that even when they claim to project a similar view of the university, the indicators that they use and the weighting that is accorded to these indicators tend to differ. The recent ranking of African universities by Journals Consortium and Times Higher Education (THE) are good examples of the challenges related to rankings.
Both sought to rank African universities on the basis of research. While the former used three indicators (citations, volume of research and web visibility), the latter used one, research influence. The results are disparate.
The University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria is ranked sixth by THE but appears at position 36 in the Journals Consortium ranking! These kinds of rankings do not add any value to the advancement of higher education in Africa, and the on-going continental initiatives to locate higher education at the centre of the continent’s development.
Africa needs a diverse higher education system that will guarantee the expedited development of high level human capital and production of new knowledge that has an impact on African development.
There are many models of the university, and not a single ideal type that rankings seek to promote.
The author is Gerald Wangenge-Ouma, the Director of institutional Planning at the University of Pretoria.