One of the greatest South African intellectuals, Eugène Marais, in his classic 1928 book Die Siel van die Mier, explains his study of the behaviour of the colony of ants. These small social insects are able to build complicated anthills that are several thousand times taller than them. This is akin to people building structures that are several thousand times taller than them, and this is a feat that humans have not yet achieved.
Inside the anthill structure, air circulation is so efficient that it is as if there is an air-conditioner. Marais wondered how these small ants achieved such complicated tasks. His insight into the workings of these ants has revolutionised artificial intelligence.
Today we have ant colony optimisation algorithm that allows electronic maps to find shortest distances between two positions. Marais’ insight into the intelligence of the ants was so impressive that Nobel Laureate Maurice Maeterlinck apparently and unfortunately appropriated it as his.
In the study of the intelligence of the colony of ants, it was found that they are driven by several factors which include communication, diversity, learning, co-operation and competition. These factors are useful in the study of university rankings in order to advance the mission of a university, which was identified by Alexander von Humboldt as teaching and learning, research and community engagement.
Last week I attended the Times Higher Education Summit in Singapore. This summit discussed how to build a modern university that is able to tackle the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
In addition, the 2019 global university rankings were announced. Globally, the University of Oxford was ranked the best university followed by the University of Cambridge and then Stanford University. It was quite interesting to note that the Times Higher Education, which is a British ranking system, tends to rate British universities as being the best when compared with other rankings such as the QS and Shanghai rankings.
Regionally, the University of Cape Town (UCT) is ranked the best university in Africa, while Tsinghua University in China is ranked the best university in Asia and the ETH Zurich is ranked the best university in mainland Europe (this excludes England). Tsinghua University educates the Chinese elites, including that country’s last two presidents, whereas ETH Zurich educated Albert Einstein.
Coming back home, UCT is followed by the University of the Witwatersrand, which is followed by the University of Stellenbosch, then the University of Kwazulu-Natal and the University of Johannesburg.
These ranking systems have become a billion-dollar industry and can be divided into two types. The first are those that rank universities without interacting with them and the second are those that require universities to submit information to be used in the ranking. The Times Higher Education ranking requires universities to submit information whereas the Shanghai ranking does not. Ranking systems that require submission of information necessitate universities investing resources into gathering relevant information.
A few weeks ago, I received a call from the vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, Professor Adam Habib, proposing that we all collectively should withdraw from university rankings.
The three reasons he gave for this withdrawal are that rankings require the preparation of information that drains the resources of the universities, that they do not take into account the national and local context, and that they are based on perceptions of universities which are often biased and not always a real reflection of the reality.
Before we consider this possible withdrawal, we need to understand what it is exactly that these rankings measure.
The Times Higher Education measures five elements of which the first is industry income. This measures how much the university is able to raise from industry. The second element measures international diversity as quantified by the number of international students and staff.
The third element measures the learning environment which quantifies the staff-to-student ratios, the proportion of postgraduate students, teaching reputation and so on. The fourth measure is research output and this is quantified by the number of papers published, the reputation of the research enterprise as well as research income and research productivity of each staff member. The fifth measure is the citation of the research enterprise of the university.
Now, do these five measures advance the mission of the university, which is to teach, research and engage the community? To understand this question, one needs to go back to Eugène Marais’ studies of the ants which build beautiful ant hills by, among other factors, competing and co-operating. Do these rankings force us to compete, co-operate and collaborate?
In the mathematical field of game theory there is a concept called a zero-sum-game. This means that a gain by one party is a loss by another party.
The ranking system is predominantly a zero-sum-game because a gain by one university is usually a loss by another university. Consequently, for the University of Johannesburg to get to the top five in South Africa, the University of Pretoria had to fall off. The only exception to this rule is if there is a tie. So rankings are a competitive game and, like in the making of the beautiful ant hill, competition contributes to the making of a good university.
The second element from the ant colony, is co-operation. Do university rankings encourage co-operation? One of the research findings show that research papers that are collaborated on by many universities are cited more than those that are written in a single university. This is simply because collaborated research papers tend to have more people, who can potentially market the papers, than papers with no collaboration. And because collaboration improves rankings, well-ranked universities collaborate more than lower-ranked universities.
The other factor we can learn from the colony of ants is diversity, which is measured as international diversity in the ranking system. The diversity of a colony of ants makes them adaptive and resilient to failure.
Professor Chris Brink, the former vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University, has written extensively about the relationship between diversity and excellence of universities. Universities that are diverse, in terms of students and staff, have more rich culture and thinking leverage than universities that are homogeneous.
Students who come to diverse universities have a richer experience than those who go to homogeneous universities. Since, rankings reward diversity, they contribute towards making a great university.
In 2017, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced measures to improve Japanese universities in order to globalise Japanese society and the economy. The strategy he adopted was to internationalise Japanese universities.
In 2012, the Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the Russian Academic Excellence project, which was aimed at having five Russian universities in the top 100 by 2020. China has also been investing in getting its universities into the top 100 and this has resulted in a Chinese University (Tsinghua University) becoming the top university in Asia since the introduction of the ranking systems.
Given all these benefits of the ranking system, should South African universities participate in them? For South Africa to meet its social, political and economic objectives, it should participate in these rankings. Government should encourage universities to take these rankings seriously because ultimately this improves the quality of universities.
The university sector should adopt a strategy on how South Africa will participate in a ranking system and craft the objectives of this participation. In conclusion, we should encourage all our universities to participate in rankings. DM
Tshilidzi Marwala is vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesburg. He is the co-author of the book Smart Computing Applications in Crowdfunding. He writes in his personal capacity.