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January 22, 2019

Universities must be about teaching excellence and quality research

Kenyatta University.  /Monicah Mwangi
Kenyatta University. /Monicah Mwangi

Competition is a dominant animal and plant trait. Plants and animals compete for resources such as nutrients, water, food, territory and mates. Dominance is a function of what is controlled and who is subdued or relegated to less resource- endowed niches.

Just like animals and plants, organisations also compete for resources. Who controls the market? For countries, competition is about who has the largest army or GDP. Even among neighbours, there is gossip about who has the biggest car or who sends their children to the fanciest school. For schools competition is about grades or pass rates.

Inevitably, completion produces ranking. Someone comes first and someone finds himself or herself at the bottom of the pile. But seldom do we agree on the value of what is counted or measured to generate the ranking.

University ranking always fascinates me. University ranking always draws debate among academics, industry, students, parents and government. There are three ranking systems that many people take seriously. They are: QS ‘World University Ranking; The Times ‘Higher Education World University Ranking’ and ‘Academic Ranking of World Universities’, also known as the Shanghai ranking.

All these rankings judge universities, especially those that are regarded as research-intensive, across all of their core missions: Teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook. The number of Nobel Prizes awarded and the number of scientific papers published or cited in leading scientific journals, such as Nature and Science, are commonly used to measure research output.

Moreover, rankings fail spectacularly to provide any objective measure of teaching quality. My guess is that an assessment of undergraduate students’ learning outcomes would pose a significant challenge to the top ranking universities.

Derek Bok, former Harvard University president, writes persuasively in his book Our Underachieving Colleges about what undergraduates learn or fail to learn. Bok observes that over their undergraduate programmes, students in engineering and science tend to get worse at writing and quantitative reasoning.

Albert Einstein said not everything that counts could be measured. But is research output all that counts? Critics of rankings have cautioned that the easy to count or measure indicators used in rankings could undermine the broader aims of university education.

We must think of a university model that goes beyond measuring faculty research productivity. It is common knowledge that the quality of research a professor produces has little bearing on the quality of their teaching or student outcomes.

Nothing is more important than student learning outcomes. Universities must return to a commitment to teaching and leaning outcomes. We must begin the noble task of measuring and rewarding success in increasing student learning. This is the cardinal mission of the academy.

One of the stated aims of university ranking is to help students decide which universities to apply to. And naturally parents and students would bet on colleges at the top of the league table.

But in essence what they are buying is prestige in the labour market place. Undoubtedly, ranking has served the professoriate well. It is time to focus on teaching and learning.

Alex O. Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University

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