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Between Nigerian varsities and global ranking agencies

Published by Guardian on Sun, 12 Aug 2012

THE argument over which university is better than the other in one or more ways, has always generated deep interest among various stakeholders across the country. It is a common phenomenon to hear professors, old students of various universities or polytechnics argue among themselves at major conferences or parties, over which institution is better than the other.Graduates of the University of Ibadan, for instance, often proudly announce anywhere, that their alma mater is the first and still the best. But if graduates of the Obafemi Awolowo University (formerly University of Ife), overheard such a declaration, they would quickly disagree and then insist that their own alma mater, and not UI is, indeed, the best.Interestingly, this unofficial ranking of tertiary institutions, which many Nigerians have often engaged in unconsciously, is taken more seriously in other climes. The business of ranking tertiary institutions all over the world has been fuelled by various factors: Students, who are looking for a good institution to pursue their careers; academics, who are desirous of finding appropriate institutions also for career fulfillment;' and even corporate bodies looking for expertise and research results in various fields, in order to overtake their competitors and enhance their profits.Only 10 Nigerian tertiary institutions ' one federal polytechnic, one private and eight federal universities ' made the list of the top 100 in Africa, according to the July 2012 Webometrics Ranking of World Universities (WRWU).Significantly, the top six on the list are from South Africa, with the University of Cape Town taking the first position. The first Nigerian institution and 31st on the list is the University of Benin (UNIBEN), closely followed by Auchi Polytechnic in the 32nd position. The next is the University of Ibadan, 45th, followed by the University of Ilorin in the 47th position.The others are, University of Lagos (55th), University of Nigeria, Nsukka (64th), Ahmadu Bello University (76th), Obafemi Awolowo University (79th), University of Jos (88th) and Covenant University (94th).While the first in Africa is 334th in the world ranking, the first, second and third in Nigeria are occupying the 2, 486th, 2, 488th, and 3, 216th positions respectively.The Webometrics ranking initiative is the brainchild of the Cybermetrics Laboratory, a research group of the Consejo Superior de Investigations (CSIS), based in Spain. Information obtained from the organisation's website revealed that, the organisation's laboratory arm focuses 'on the quantitative analysis of the Internet and web contents, especially those related to the processes of generation and scholarly communication of scientific knowledge.'Its original aim was not to rank institutions but to promote web publication, support open access initiatives and electronic access to scientific publications and other academic materials. Its goal was also to motivate both institutions and scholars to have a web presence that reflect their activities accurately. It has, since 2004, been publishing the ranking results twice a year, in January and July.However, there are two other organisations known to engage in the same exercise: The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) based in China, and the Times Higher Education World University Rankings (THEWUR), based in the United Kingdom (UK). While the Centre for World Class Universities, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China first published the ARWU in June 2003, the Times Higher Education magazine began publishing its own version of world university rankings every autumn since 2004. However, after the 2009 edition, it switched to the Academic Reputation Survey method, which entails sending questionnaires to academics in all parts of the world, asking for specifics. This year, responses came from 31,000 academics from 149 countries, which helped the organisation to determine the world's best 500 universities.But no Nigerian tertiary institution was featured among the world's best 500 universities, in the global rankings released recently by the three bodies. The number one University in the world, according to ARWU and WRWU is Harvard University in the United States (U.S.) The THEWUR, on the other hand, rates it as second best worldwide. While the ARWU rated United States based Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as second and third best (worldwide) respectively, the WRWU rated MIT second and Stanford third. But to THEWUR, the California Institute of Technology, Harvard and Stanford Universities are first, second and third respectively.On the side, the THEWUR rated Africa's number one, the University of Cape Town, 103rd in the world, while the ARWU rated it 201st in its own ranking.The parameters adopted by the three organizations at arriving at their positions are varied and complex. The ARWU ranks institutions according to their research and academic performance. Ranking indicators also include alumni and staff who have won Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals.On the other hand, the THEWUR employ 13 separate performance indicators designed to capture the full range of University activities. These are grouped under five headlines: Teaching, Research,Citations, Industry Income and International Mix. In Africa, the African Union (AU) also recently initiated the African Quality Rating Mechanism (AQRM) to ensure that performance of higher education institutions could be compared agaisnt a set of criteria that takes into account, the context and challenges of higher education delivery on the continent.In Nigeria, the first attempt at national ranking of Universities by the National Universities Commission (NUC) took place in 2001, when the results of the accreditation exercise, carried out between 1999 and 2000, were used as data to compute programmes and institutional rankings. In 2002, NUC revised the process, and added more modifications in 2003. While the 2001 exercise had only one indicator, the 2004 version incorporated other benchmarks, employed by the three known international ranking organisations.However, some academics, who spoke to The Guardian at the weekend, expressed divergent views on the issue. A former vice chancellor of the University of Benin (UNIBEN), under whose tenure UNIBEN ranked among the best 50 in Africa, Prof. Emmanuel Nwanze, argued that the Webometrics ranking was in order. He insisted that technology has made it possible to get adequate information about any institution without having to go to where it is located.'There are parameters used in arriving at the ranking,' he stated. 'Although, the rankings may not be perfect, they are nevertheless very useful. It is like a wake-up call, and a voice of wisdom. How can anybody argue with the ranking procedure' Look at what we have today, we've got Twitter, Facebook and there is digital revolution. It is important for Universities to take their research activities to the Internet for the world to see. We need quality teaching and research activities in our universities, but how can you do all that, without making yourself visible on the Internet' We must listen, but we must not make it (ranking) the basis of our existence.'Prof. Peter Okebukola, former executive secretary of the NUC and chairman, Governing Council of Crawford University, Igbesa, Ogun state also affirmed that while rankings were good, they may not adequately reflect the true position of things in the institutions being ranked. He noted that of the three international ranking organisations, the ARWU is the most reliable, followed by the THEWUR. He downplayed the WRWU, insisting that web contents alone, though relevant, may not be sufficient to rate institutions.To the Executive Secretary of the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund), Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, even if the WRWU relies on web contents alone to rate Nigerian universities, there is no reason why they (universities) should not be among the best. 'My position is that, even if it the white boards that are being rated by the ranking bodies, we (Nigerian Universities) should be among the best.'On the argument by some academics that the organisations' methods were inappropriate, since they did not inspect facilities in the country, Yakubu said, 'if they come to Nigeria, what are they going to see' If they come and see what we have, they will not even rate us at all. Only 57 per cent of a total of 38, 888 lecturers in our universities have doctorate degrees (Ph.D). In terms of access, the candidates, who sat for the last Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) are more than the 1.2 million students we have in all our universities. So, we are not even creating enough access, which is one of the ranking benchmarks.'In Africa, we have 12 Nobel Laureates, four are from South Africa, three are from Egypt. Since 1986 when Prof. Wole Soyinka won the Nobel Prize in Literature, no Nigerian academic has been nominated for the prize.'Prof. Michael Omolewa, Nigeria's former ambassador to UNESCO, who also elected President of the 32nd Session of the General Conference of UNESCO also underscored the relevance of ranking.His words: 'it is desirable that the ranking of universities takes place. The result will encourage those identified as doing well and leave those at the bottom of the scale to work out strategies for improved performance and the charting of a better course. The ranking will also help the stakeholders, proprietors, funders, parents and employers to know what products are being produced by the institutions.'Since the founding of universities can be done by anybody or government, using financial and/or political weight, it is in the interest of the public to know what goes on behind the curtains of the universities, what the quality of staff, teaching facilities, and research is, how staff is recruited and how students are admitted. This means that placement among the top universities must have a meaning for each country. And this is not just for the 'feel-good or heuristic purpose', but for parents, funders and stakeholders to know how efficient and effective the institutions, which are available are run.'It must be disturbing for countries of the world which do not feature among the best 100 universities. And African countries, which are not represented among the best 100 universities, must feel concerned. And in Africa, no one knows how the report is treated in countries, which receive the report, that seven of the best 10 universities are in South Africa, and three are in Egypt.'A Vice-Chancellor in Malaysia is said to have lost his job when his university was not among the best 100 of his region! It is of course a valid argument that the ranking of universities should have regional perspectives and not exclusively done by outside institutions, which would be more concerned about issues that may be of less relevance to the individual regions and countries. Thus for Africa, the best institution to do the ranking should be the Association of African Universities, working appropriately in concert with national university accrediting bodies. There should also be an agreed formula for determining the criteria for ranking of the universities.'Mary Kolawole, an eminent Professor of English, also agreed with the relevance of ranking. She declared: 'Global Ranking of Universities is desirable as a tool for assessment and motivation among other aims. The main challenge is how to objectify the parameters and dynamics of evaluation as well as eliminate condescension and intellectual insularity.'However, Prof. Ayo Banjo, former vice chancellor of the University of Ibadan expressed mixed feelings. While he was not against ranking as a concept, he urged caution in accepting ranking results.His words: 'I think universities should take it seriously, but not too seriously. They should be more interested in developing into first rate universities than in trying to impress anybody.'On whether Nigerian universities should rely on various global rankings, he said, 'I have my doubts. Where were the criteria agreed' There may well be a cultural bias.' On what benefits policy makers could derive from the concept, Banjo expressed his doubts. 'It's an ego-boosting mechanism,' he stated, 'and I don't think the rankings I've seen of Nigerian universities reflect the facts on the ground. Some people know how to make their universities look good on line than others. In any case, are Nigerian universities seriously competing for students from other countries'In his own submission, Oladipo Akinkugbe, internationally renowned Professor of Medicine and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Ilorin said: 'Nigerian Universities should take these global rankings with a pinch of salt and not break their necks attempting to meet 'camel and needle' criteria. The methodology of ranking is flawed, having been markedly skewed in favour of 'western' tertiary institutions. Universities all over the world function on the tripod of teaching, research and service.'The integrated impact of this triad on society, on the world of learning, of work, the application of knowledge to national, regional and global challenges and the esteem with which their products are held must form part of the basis of that assessment. Those, who give the verdict on rankings are often 'judges in their own court'!He continued: 'in some countries the scientific output of Institutes exceed that of universities. The ability to attract substantial research funds (often used as an important criterion) is almost the monopoly of a few universities in western societies. This is why the global ranking of the first dozen or so institutions is merely the changing of positions in the pecking order.'Developing countries, by their very nature, are never going to be able to compete with the more affluent economies in this regard. Especially when it comes to inter-disciplinary research breaking new ground ' all these require a substantial quantum of resource.The research grants of Harvard and MIT or of Oxford and Cambridge exceed the total budget of many countries in the developing world. It might therefore be equally relevant to look at how universities are impacting by making maximal use of dwindling resources and benefiting their environment. We must continue to ask 'How ivory is the ivory tower''However, the Director General of the Nigerian Building and Road Research Institute (NBRRI), an agency under the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, Prof. Slim Matawal Danladi, told The Guardian that the methods being used by the ranking bodies 'are subjective.'His words: 'I think that it is important to note that the term 'webometrics' is not an existing dictionary word and so it has only been created in the last decade to justify a new human endeavor that has no basis in the past. Webometrics ranking is currently a global assessment, especially applied to Universities round the world, which is based wholly on visibility on the World Wide Web, www.'To be visible, the organisation or institution must possess a website that provides the reference point for the retrieval of relevant data for collation, analysis and comparative study to determine which university earns more marks to be assessed or ranked as qualitatively superior.'Thus when the webometric ranking started providing its tables in about the year 2000, only a handful of Nigerian Universities (about three only) actually featured because most of them lacked a website. It is also important to add that even today, universities that possess websites, and I suspect most or all have them, must update their sites continuously to get their current status quos captured.'When all universities have updated websites, is there guarantee that captured or uploaded data will be relevant to the web masters or authors of the global rankings' Definitely, there is no clear guideline or even benchmarks circulated by any authority for webometric rankings.'The webometric rankings have no legal authority to make it compulsory to provide a set of data on websites and so, if for cultural reasons, as an example, a certain country bars its institutions from making some information public, they will not have sufficient Webometric visibility for ranking. Therefore, Webometrics global rankings are mere theoretical information, posted by some voluntary group of individuals on websites, to provide information for global debate and amusement. It cannot be legally binding or enforced, it is highly subjective and designed to elevate traditionally favoured Universities in America, Europe and Japan, because they are developed economies and the status quo must be maintained.'The superiority claims of Harvard, MIT, CalTech, Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial College must be maintained at all costs. Webometric ranking does not capture critical components of academic excellence like quantity, quality and appropriateness of physical facilities, teaching and research infrastructure, safety and sanitation, institutional contribution to culture, economies; hard, soft and e-library, curricula and other relevant data. It is therefore a totally theoretical process that can be misleading, if it becomes the document to be wholly relied upon.'I graduated from the Ahmadu Bello University in 1978 and proceeded for my postgraduate studies at one of the most highly rated colleges in the World, Imperial College, London, which has always featured as the top-ranked universities in Engineering in Europe and Webometrically fluctuates between 5th and 16th in the world in different editions of the ranking. However, neither from my schooling at Imperial College, nor from my visit to other universities do I agree that the disparity is so much that most universities in the UK should feature in the first 100 top universities in the world and our own Nigerian universities will not even be in the top 5000.'There is therefore both discrimination and lack of objectivity as the languages of knowledge dissemination are not even common. The ranking is clearly subjective. From my own limited engineering viewpoint, a webometric ranking is the same as an engineer undertaking a design for a structure without having any knowledge of the site conditions to inspect/ascertain, sample, and test the physical conditions.'The structure, be it road, bridge or building will collapse when constructed, like many buildings are collapsing in Nigeria these days. Even rankings based on physical visits are frequently subjects of intense and fierce controversies. However these controversies can be minimised by the presence of physical evidences.'As a consequence, webometrics rankings have no bite in them. In fact, they do not even raise controversies because nobody cares about them as their authors have no mandate to prepare their theoretical lists nor do they have an authority to impose any sanctions on a country or university that has no score.'Webometrics World Ranking of Universities July 2012: Top Africa1. UNIVERSITY of Cape Town2. Stellenbosch University3. University of Pretoria4. Rhodes University5. University of Kwazulu Natal6. University of the Witwatersrand7. Cairo University8. University of South Africa9. University of Western Capetown10. Ain Shams University31. University of Benin32. Auchi Polytechnic45. University of Ibadan47. University of Ilorin55. University of Lagos64. University of Nigeria, Nsukka76. Ahmadu Bello University79. Obafemi Awolowo University88. University of Jos94. Covenant University, Ota
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