It has become a widely shared view that only world-class or leading universities can earn a rank in the top 500 league. Wits has repeatedly earned itself a good rank in this league of universities, asserting itself as one of the leading universities in the world. A shift in the actual position Wits occupies does not mean that standards have dropped and quality has been compromised – Wits remains one of the best 500 universities in the world where there are approximately 20 000 institutions.
The international ranking of universities has been given impetus by globalization. In recent years, the league table approach has become a popular method of ranking and making international comparisons. Students and academics are keen to ensure that their university of choice is indeed a worldclass institution. The challenge of league tables is that they operate on shifting sand and targeted at moving targets. Everyone wants to be worldclass or in the top 100 whether or not they articulate that goal. In real life, there is no significant difference between an institution ranked 500 and the other ranked 501, and yet that marginal difference displaces institution 501 from the top 500 league. This alone may have huge implications for an institution ranked 501 in terms of public perceptions of:
It is a given that league tables use methodologies that are flawed to a certain extent and will probably remain that way given the fact that universities are complex and distinct entities. It is also equally true that the outcomes of assessment have huge implications for institutional positioning. The possibility of having a flawless methodology for the ranking of universities is slim and can only exist in a state of utopia. It is in this context that Wits continues to use the top 100 goal as a proxy for excellence as opposed to a mechanistic pursuit of a particular rank. Wits is realistic about the challenges of maintaining a high ranking amongst her peers globally. The university continues to strive for academic excellence with aspirations to remain a leading university and which could culminate in the university earning a place in the top 100 league in 2022 (12 years from now). The university is repositioning itself for this target through the Vision 2022 Strategic Framework.
While Wits University should not only position its strategic thrust toward achieving higher rankings, we have to accept that rankings are here to stay, even if we do not like them. If we choose not to participate, they (the ranking authorities) will continue to rank us using the information available in the public domain anyway. Universities have the responsibility to inform and shape perceptions and assumption made about their quality arrangements and standards of scholarship through these league tables. They need to engage and participate in conversations that seek to reduce the margins of error in ranking criteria and methodologies and foreground issues of institutional differentiation (social and economic context; institutional typology; role of universities in their immediate context, language imperatives; national imperatives in the context where universities are situated etc.)
The challenges with current methodologies for ranking include the following:
Given the fact that a number of universities from first world economies are sidelined in these league tables, it is clear that universities from Africa and South Africa in particular will continue to experience ‘double’ marginalisation in these league tables due to a largely developmental context in which these universities operate. Further, that most of our universities are teaching and research orientated is a factor that works against us when being ranked. This does not mean that rankings will dissolve and disappear for our sake. In South Africa, we need to work on ensuring that our universities are differentiated and those that are largely research intensive are well positioned in the knowledgebased global economy to produce high level research with visible global impact.