World University Rankings 2022: mountains to climb

Universities in low-income regions worry that the Covid crisis could stymie their life-saving research and life-changing teaching. Ellie Bothwell writes

September 2, 2021
aftermath of Haiti flood
Source: Reuters

Browse the full results of the World University Rankings 2022

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Three months before La Soufrière erupted on the Caribbean island of St Vincent earlier this year, the Seismic Research Centre at the University of the West Indies raised the alarm. Government officials began contacting residents and reviewing evacuation plans. On 8 April, 13,000 residents were removed from a designated red zone. Twenty-four hours later, the volcano exploded in its first major eruption in 42 years. No lives were lost.

“We were able to save thousands of lives by being there for the people,” says UWI’s vice-chancellor, Sir Hilary Beckles. “We heard it before we saw it, and we had a good lead time to do what we had to do.”

But for Beckles, the incident is not only an example of the literally life-saving research at his institution. It also represents how he sees the UWI’s role in the region and the world more broadly.

“The kind of research this region will need to shape policy, to shape public opinion, can only come out of the UWI,” he says, adding that the university has also carried out “45 years of unbroken research” on climate change, from rising sea levels and warming ocean temperatures to the destruction of the marine environment and the impact on fisheries.

However, while he believes that the UWI has a leading part to play, Beckles is aware that these kinds of problems cannot be solved by a single institution. In his role as president of Universities Caribbean, he has sought to unite the region’s universities around specific, high-priority themes.

“The imperial fragmentation of the Caribbean is still so deep and profound,” he says, observing that there are few finance, business and trade links between the English- and French-speaking parts of the region. “But we are using the higher education system to transcend the barriers of politics, the barriers of colonial legacies, and to pull the Caribbean together.”

Funding such a strategy will not be straightforward, especially after the coronavirus outbreak.

“The economy of the region has been devastated because of its reliance on tourism and financial services especially, and the governments have lost over 80 per cent of their public revenue…We have already felt that impact with reduced investment in the higher education system and research,” Beckles explains.

But the UWI, which is ranked in the 401-500 band in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2022 (up from 501-600 last year), has a new funding strategy, centred on attracting investment from international donors, foundations and multilateral organisations and appealing to governments to stabilise their current levels of funding.

Speaking about the pandemic’s impact on lower-income countries more broadly, Beckles says it presents “an existential threat”, particularly given that these nations had not yet recovered from the global economic crisis just over a decade earlier.

Roberta Malee Bassett, global lead for tertiary education at the World Bank, agrees that Covid-19 will widen the gap between higher education systems in low- and high-income countries. She says there is already some disparity in Western Europe and North America, based on coronavirus rates in different countries and states, and this will be even more pronounced in poorer regions of the world.

“There is no question that the lower income countries, even the lower middle income countries, will have a longer period of adjustment to the pandemic. There are no vaccines in many countries or vaccination rates are extremely low, so getting back to normal operations will be delayed in a way that will not be experienced in wealthier countries,” she says.

Bassett adds that the impact on higher education is wide-ranging, from fewer school pupils completing their secondary education to university students struggling to access online learning or even fund higher education at all. At the same time, governments are redistributing funding towards health and away from education.

“All of those things get compounded over time. The longer [the pandemic] lasts, the less likely it is that the at-risk students will return because their whole lives will have pivoted away from their education,” she says.

Man on bike in Sri Lanka

Chandrika Wijeyaratne, vice-chancellor of Sri Lanka’s University of Colombo, which is ranked 801-1,000 in the THE World University Rankings (up from the 1,001+ band last year), is also most concerned about the students who might fall through the cracks. Higher education in the country is free for students, but that means that funding is limited and there are not enough university places, she says. And while the shift to online learning has the potential to increase spaces, it is not straightforward.

“There are students who have to go up a tree or climb a hill to access [the internet and therefore online education],” she says.

“If a student needs clarification or has disabilities or special needs, I worry about that very much. We are the only university [in Sri Lanka] that has a formal intake of students with special needs, and it has been very challenging.”

Bassett agrees that there will be “an expanded equity problem caused by this digital divide”, but she says the pandemic has also “opened people’s eyes to the need to invest in those areas, so in the medium and long term I think we’ll see the benefit of digital investment”.

“That’s not something we’ll see in the next five years or so. It’s still too early and too expensive for most of these countries to make that transition in their funding model and their delivery model,” she adds.

But 7,000km north, Timirkhan Alishev, vice-rector of international cooperation at Russia’s Kazan Federal University, which is also ranked among the 801-1,000 band, sees Covid-19 as only “a short-term problem” for his institution.

“We’re investing in the development of our digital infrastructure, but the university will not change fundamentally,” he says.

His optimism partly relates to the sustained higher education support from the Russian government, which is now focused on a new programme called Priority 2030. Previously, its most high-profile initiative was Project 5-100, which launched in 2012 and aimed to get at least five Russian universities into the top 100 in international rankings by 2020 (the top Russian institution in the latest World University Rankings is joint 158th).

Priority 2030 is more focused on bringing about substantial change in universities. Many of the key performance indicators align with metrics in global rankings – they include the amount of industry income, the number of publications in top journals, the number of citations – but Alishev says rankings success is “a logical aftermath” of the project rather than the main goal.

As well as a track focused on excellence in research, the initiative includes a track related to universities helping to develop the regions and cities in which they are based.

Alishev believes the new programme has more scope for success than 5-100, not least because more than 100 universities will be supported through the scheme (compared with 21 in the previous initiative) and regional governments will also be involved.

“Project 5-100 was more oriented towards international rankings and international indicators, which sometimes were not understood by the regional governments, [which thought] there were much more pressing issues here in their territory,” he says.

The World Bank’s Bassett also favours a local approach, with her top tip to institutions and nations for withstanding the current pandemic-related challenges being to “be realistic about what the conditions are in their local space…instead of looking at big global trends”.

“Look at what is genuinely happening to your student community, to your academic community, get as much local data as you can and then focus the interventions there on what is needed in the immediate future,” she says.

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