It is my job, as editor of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, to take all the wonderful, intangible, gloriously complex things that universities do and reduce them to a set of simple numbers.
That doesn’t always make me popular. Nevertheless, I’m going to try to persuade you that university rankings are incredibly helpful – not just for helping universities to improve but for nation-building.
I have many allies in my cause. Halima Begum, the British Council’s director for education in East Asia, told THE in 2014 that in many ways rankings are far more important in the developing world than in advanced economies.
Her reasoning? That policymakers in Asia, at least, place far more store in universities as engines of economic growth and competitiveness, and “rankings are a yardstick to measure that progress”.
What’s more, rankings’ simplicity “helps focus government attention on education policy, particularly in countries where there are inadequate quality assessment measures for academic standards”.
Last week, I was at the University of Ghana, host of the THE Africa Universities Summit 2016, which focused my thoughts on how rankings can assist in the continent’s vital development agenda.
I was reminded of remarks made by Max Price, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, a few years ago: “The question of North-South inequality is not just an ideological matter or an issue of national pride,” he said. “In a globalised economy, if a country cannot integrate reasonably competitively into global systems of trade, finance, communications and data production, quality assurance and global markets, it cannot develop.
“If a developing country is not independently competent to advocate its position in global policy debates…it will not be able to protect and promote its interests.”
All this, he said, requires internationally competitive research universities.
Of course, Africa has many pressing priorities that current global, research-focused university rankings do not address. But acting on these challenges while also nurturing a necessarily select group of world-class, globally focused universities need not be mutually exclusive.
I’m a great believer in the importance of diversity in higher education systems: put simply, there is no one single correct model of excellence. And the existing world university rankings are, I would argue, in harmony with the African Union’s Agenda 2063 programme.
This vision of Africa’s development priorities talks about ensuring that the continent is “an influential global player and partner” with “well educated and skilled citizens, underpinned by science, technology and innovation for a knowledge society”.
It demands that “Africa’s human capital will be fully developed as its most precious resource”, through “sustained investment in higher education, science, technology, research and innovation”. It emphasises the crucial importance of a “world-class infrastructure for learning and research”.
This is exactly what the THE World University Rankings cover. We also provide the tools to help universities act and compete on the world stage.
The importance of that was clearly articulated last month by Philip L. Clay, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (and its former chancellor). Africa’s isolation from university rankings, he said, “means African academics are isolated from the global knowledge generation which increasingly comes from collaborations across ranked institutions and national borders”.
Clay was clear that Africa must “own, develop, manage and deploy its talent both to advance its own development and to be among the global players in the science and technology domains”.
Why? Because “when a nation can compete on the production and use of knowledge, there is a better chance for shaping its own fate”.
Phil Baty is editor of the THE World University Rankings