Alternative Approach to Global Ranking Tournament: Viewing South African Higher Education through a Service Lens

Alternative Approach to Global Ranking Tournament: Viewing South African Higher Education through a Service Lens

Pope Francis recently made a prophetic call  that the church be an inclusive “home for all” and not a “small chapel” for a select few[1]. Universities ought to be inclusive, a place of empowerment for all and reduce significant knowledge gaps through meaningful engagement and social transformation. Hence, increasing opportunities for empowerment and civic engagement for long lasting change. His remarks are not only applicable to the church, but could also not be better timed as we continue to experience the fever of internationalization of institutions of higher learning. The attempt at internationalizing institutions of higher education is evidenced in the global ranking system of higher education. The impact of globalization on higher education in the 21st century cannot be underestimated, but there are worrying trends that should make us not so quick to accept the flawed global ranking systems in our quest to become world-class and in the top 100 universities in the world. Internationalization is defined as a “process of integrating an international, intercultural, or global dimension into the purpose, functions or delivery of postsecondary education” (Knight, 2003, p. 3). We must take into account that being a world-class university is not achieved through self-declaration. It is based on international recognition which, in most cases has to do with academic programmes, research output and technology transfer.

The current discourse on global rankings, which suggests that universities must accept the notion of global ranking, is self-defeating and unrealistic given our country’s historical context. There is no clear evidence that participating in the ranking tournament addresses any of the pertinent challenges that students are faced with such as student retention, graduation rates, skills development and cost of attending universities. In the United States of America (USA) less than 60 percent of students who enter four-year institutions earn a degree within six years, and I do not want to believe that we are far from that picture or even better in South Africa (SA) (Bitner, Ostrom, & Burkhard, 2012). We need to be addressing the financial and time burden incurred by students and their families. In addition to these, there are also worries about higher education that is beneficial to society at large through development of skills that are required to compete successfully in today’s interconnected global space. These issues require new thinking and innovative approaches to higher education.

There is no doubt about the importance of the relevance of South African universities in the global space, but we should never oversimplify their complex post-apartheid reality. Instead of South African universities participating in the race to join the ‘super-league’ universities, using the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education would be more appropriate given the country’s past. The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education serves as a ‘framework for recognizing and describing institutional diversity in the USA’, not as a ranking mechanism. The Carnegie Classifications group “institutions into meaningful, analytically manageable categories in order to allow researchers to make reasonable comparisons among similar institutions”[2]. All the ranking professional association seems to ignore the measure of teaching quality and social services yet those are the core components of the mission of an institution of higher learning (Altbach, 2012).

Striving to achieve a kind of iconic status instead of making education a bridge is not useful to our historical context. For a university to successfully gain entry to the world class universities and strengthen their international profiles, it has to “reconsider its mission, tasks and responsibilities, as well as develop innovative strategies to improve their relevance and function” (Ojo & Booth, 2009, p. 309). In my view universities exist to serve students and society at large.

In this view, universities are to put the citizens at the center of improvement and innovative initiatives by considering the citizens’ historical background as the foundation for making enhancements. Education should not be used to divide and polarize our societies, widening the gap between those marginalized groups and those who benefitted in the past injustices.  In the interest of justice and access, education should give real meaning to students’ socioeconomic development and upward mobility. My concerns are the failure of institutions to address social inequalities, massification of higher education and students’ continuation of funding higher education at all levels. In turn, students leaving or graduating with massive debts and no prospect of good jobs leading to a failure to realise the ‘living happily ever after’ narrative.

The global ranking tournament seems to focus more on prestige rather than transforming the student experience and skills development. From my experience, it is evident that the rankings are about research, battling for intellectual talent and academic prestige instead of viewing higher education through a service lens. Hence I contend that it should not be about position-taking, but personal development, social transformation and tolerance. Our universities should consider our students demographic and socio-economic standing as they work on joining the Super-League of global universities and strengthening their international profiles. It rings true to me that education is a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa not privilege.

Our universities need to position themselves as ideal spaces for intellectual advancement and common ground for shared civil discourse. As we develop our students’ capacity to compete in the global space we do not have to succumb to pressures of participating in the global rankings. South African Universities need to craft their own identity within the global space and contextualize their existence. The argument about attracting sponsors given our context is flawed, because universities in South Africa are still in large-proportion funded by the government and escalating students’ fees. In cases whereby international organizations fund local projects they still look up to the government of South Africa for continuity. However, that does not mean we cannot play in the global space by contextualize the case of South African universities given the historical past. As a country we must learn from the words of Dr Badat, the outgoing Vice Chancellor of Rhodes University in his resignation statement,

I have counselled against an obsession with global rankings and on the need to remain focussed on the core idea, meaning and purposes of what it means to be a university – not just in abstract, but under the real conditions of a developing and transforming country and changing continent and world [3].

Focusing on rankings has brought a lot of challenges in our institutions of higher learning as we began to adopt corporate practices. Intrinsic to the corporate model is the presence of corporations on campus as service providers and corporate executives and political heavyweights sitting on councils that have accelerated the imminent takeover of institutions of higher learning by the private sector and also bringing business practices and culture.

As we continue to debate these issues we must all bear in mind that there is no better gift our country, especially our universities can give to its citizens that can be compared to education for all. All children regardless of their unfortunate socioeconomic backgrounds should be given an opportunity.  Traditionally black universities such as the University of Fort Hare should be transformed and all other universities should implement policies that will empower all students, lower tuitions and provide the necessary support. Dominative principles, which promote hegemonic tendencies, should be dismantled in order to achieve maximum value of education and meet the core needs of our country.

Simply attracting students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds to our campuses without the necessary support apparatus to unlock their potential and enable them to become part of the institutional culture is not enough. Such acts will only reinforce the past injustices as the students will have to drop out and sometimes take them longer to graduate and in the process continue to accumulate massive debts. I do not believe that our universities have reached a crossroads yet, but reinforcing the very tendencies of a system in which people experienced inequalities is disturbing. Hence, the suggestion to view South African Higher Education through a service lens to transform and improve student educational experience.


Altbach, P. G. (2012). The globalization of college and university rankings. Change:

The Magazine of Higher Learning, 44(1), 26-31.

Bitner, M., Ostrom, A. L., & Burkhard, K. A. (2012). Service Blueprinting: Transforming the

Student Experience. Educause Review, NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2012.

Knight, J. (2003). Updated internationalization definition. International Higher

Education, 33, 2-3.

Ojo, E., & Booth, S. (2009). Internationalisation of higher education in a South African university:

A phenomenographic study of students‘conceptions. Education As Change, 13, 69-83.





*Reuben Dlamini is a regular Bokamoso contributor. Read his short biography and previous articles here.


Reuben Dlamini

Reuben Dlamini is an Academic Technology Consultant at the Information Technology & Services Department at the University of Colorado at Boulder, USA.

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