Does high-ranking reflect the quality of a university?

Makerere University students at the institute's main building. On July 31 Webometrics ranked the university best in Uganda and fourth in Africa. FILE PHOTO

A retired Danish football manager Ebbe Skovdahl said, “Statistics are just like mini-skirts, they give you good ideas but hide the most important things.” You can say the same of university rankings such as Webometrics released earlier this month.

For institutions that make it to the list of 100, it is something to brag about since good ranking translates into more applications, high tuition fees and a big number of alumni giving back to the alma mater. No wonder, out of the 50,000 students joining universities every year, the admissions favour the top institutions that feature on Webometrics.

However, the rankings should not be taken at face value. It would be better we looked at pressing issues affecting Ugandan universities. And if rankings come into the picture, we should look at critical issues that make universities stand out.

Elsewhere, QS World University Rankings, regarded as one of the three most influential and widely observed international university rankings, along with the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and the Academic Ranking of World Universities, follow the criteria: academic reputation, employer reputation, citations per faculty, faculty-to-student ratio, international proportion of faculty and international proportion of students.

Webometrics does not mention important issues like lecturer-to-student ratio, yet, they are so crucial to the quality of education. It does not mention facilities or other learning amenities either.

What the universities are short of
For instance, the National Council of Higher Education recommends a lecturer-to-student ratio of 1:24 but most of the universities are struggling to meet this standard. A university lecturer should hold a PhD. In Uganda, instead of hiring PhD holders, you find MA or Msc holders and in some cases, first degree holders, in charge of critical disciplines in a bid to cut costs while filling gaps.

Webometrics carries a disclaimer on its website that its “ranking is to promote academic web presence, supporting the Open Access initiatives for increasing significantly the transfer of scientific and cultural knowledge generated by the universities to the whole society.”

But today, the media and other commentators are using them as a thumb print for a standard university education.

July 31 Webometrics ranked Makerere best in Uganda and fourth in Africa. Gulu University also featured ahead of private universities like Uganda Christian University Mukono and Uganda Martyrs University Nkozi – which in my opinion boast of better and modern facilities on top of better funding compared to their public university counterparts.

Dann Mwangi of CPS Research International in Nairobi supports the ranking saying that they have “a bearing on the reputation of universities regardless of the benchmark that is used to rank.”

But that Makerere which was recently under lock since lecturers laid down their tools in demand for better wages – shows you that number four in Africa as webometrics states, is a wishful thought.

How do universities expect to retain the best PhD brains, when a driver at KCCA takes home more money?
Annette Ainebyona, a second year student at Makerere says, she “joined Makerere because it had a reputation of offering the best education in the country.” Her friend George Kirowo, adds: “Even if it means ‘pouring’ all the money, it is worth studying here because the knowledge and certificate from Makerere matter more than you can imagine out there.”

Mwangi says the ranking helps people like Ainebyona “to gauge which universities have invested well in ICT as ICT is driver of modern education”.

The pollster explains that ranking helps universities in attracting international or local support in award of grants and research support. Therefore, if a university is ranked well, it will improve its reputation that will largely help it attract private or public sector support.

For students leaving secondary school, reputation and success of alumni, are key motivators. They are thinking about job hunting where one’s university certificate would be respected, unlike, universities rattled by degrees for sale scandals.

Dr Selvam Sahaya of the Catholic University’s Institute of Youth Studies, Nairobi sees more than meets the eye.

The bigger problem, he says, is that university education depends on research yet professors after meeting their daily target move from one university to another. He says lecturers who part-time in many universities which he calls “moonlighting” have forgotten their principle role in research.

It is not news that students are also “buying their dissertations off the streets”. Some even “buy degrees”.

These, Dr Sahaya says, are “unfortunate because Uganda has real talent” that should have a place on a global map.
“Uganda’s secondary education is one of the best in the region,” says Sahaya whose experience spans teaching students from across the continent.

The research
But because the quality of research at many universities is poor and “hardly publishable”, you realise only South African and Egyptian universities are captured by international and more credible rankings like Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

And this hurts the country’s vision of becoming the hub of business, industry, ICT, medicine and engineering.
Dr Sahaya says: “today, it is about getting a degree and not about education.”

Dr Michael Ntabo Mabururu, the head of Philosophy Department at Moi University, says in his paper, The challenges of university education in Kenya, universities still suffer from a cancer “of memorising and reproduction of the lecturer’s materials.” He explains that this model lacks practical skills, character formation and relevant training for the graduate’s survival in the society. In short, it cannot spur innovation which is wanted by today’s industry.

One would agree with the World Bank’s assessment that: “Youth don’t just need jobs, they also create them. What matters most is that the education system delivers the skills needed in emerging economies.”
With more than 25 universities in the country, Dr Sahaya advises that to make the new generation of university student realise their goals, NCHE needs to streamline courses.

“We don’t need to replicate the same courses in all universities; quality is to be ensured on the ground not just on documents,” the psychology academic says.

He says the government needs to invest more money into research to “keep the university dons busy” instead of “moonlighting” and this will contribute to “improved quality of life for all citizens”.
Dr Sahaya counsels that for Uganda to develop into a “knowledge-based economy” that provides “long term economic growth” universities have to take their place in society, and “focus on education rather than money and degrees”.

Rankings are, therefore, cosmetic if graduates are not accountable in their places of work and cannot manage their affairs independently.
Like Publilius Syrus, a first century BC Latin writer opined, “A good reputation is worth more than money”.

So, today’s universities should start by building their reputation on credible rankings, and ensure the graduates leaving their gates reflect the same reputation.