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University ranking: Does it matter?

SINCE the mid-1990s, the country has witnessed a proliferation of local and foreign higher education institutions. Education provision in Zambia had become fragmented and uncoordinated in the absence of an integrated national regulatory framework. This led to the repeal and replacement of the University Act of 1999. Thus the government enacted the Higher Education Authority Act No. 4 of 2013 to enable higher education providers to operate according to standards applicable to all public and private institutions and accreditation processes that would provide incentives for quality improvements and protect students from unregistered higher education providers.
However, Zambia’s top tertiary institutions have in the recent past continued to record a record low position on the latest rankings released by Webometrics. Since 2004, the Ranking Web (or Webometrics Ranking) publishes twice a year (data which is collected during the first weeks of January and July), covering more than 24,000 higher education Institutions worldwide. According to Webometrics, The University of Zambia (UNZA) has dropped in ranking from 23rd to 55th in Africa while the Copperbelt University (CBU) has dropped from 152nd to 239th in Africa in less than a year.
The rankings of our universities, both public and private should be of great concern not only to our university authorities and academicians but also the nation as a whole. This is because university education is more than just the next level in the learning process; it is a critical component of human development worldwide. It provides not only the high-level skills necessary for the labour market but also the training essential for our country’s teachers, doctors, nurses, civil servants, librarians, engineers, entrepreneurs, scientists, social scientists, and a myriad of other personnel needed for the social and economical development of any country. It is these trained individuals who develop the capacity and analytical skills that drive local economies, support civil society, support the education system, lead effective governments and make important decisions which affect the entire society.
It is thus highly likely that the rankings of our learning institutions on the global, regional and national scale have an effect on the credibility of graduates, research, knowledge and other products that are churned out from these universities. There are a number of factors, other than a university’s open access and transparency policy, promotion of substantial increases in the volume and quality of their electronic publications that influence the rankings of universities globally. According to Thomson Reuters (2012), a university’s research capacity and performance in terms of number of academic staff (including research staff), research income, income per academic staff member and the number of papers published per million of research income are all factors that influence the ranking of universities. There are also other factors such as number of papers published per (academic and research) staff member, global research reputation, research output, total citations counted, doctorates awarded per academic staff member and number of papers published per million of research income.
Universities are also gauged on their institutional performance such as the number of undergraduate and post graduate degrees awarded, overall student/academic staff ratio, institutional ratio income per academic staff member, institutional income per student (in total enrolment) and the number of staff engaged exclusively in research as a proportion of all academic staff.
Other ranking factors include international diversity, that is international academic staff as a proportion of all academic staff, published papers authored jointly by at least one international academic staff member as a proportion of all papers published, international student enrolment as a proportion of total student enrolment, new international undergraduate intake as a proportion of total new undergraduate intake, international research reputation and international teaching reputation. Both our private and public universities should thus be evaluated on how well they have scored on the above scorecard.
However, the enactment and operationalization of the Higher Education Authority Act of 2013 in Zambia should, among other things, address the recent reported poor ratings and standing of our public and private universities by enabling a system for establishing equivalences with other higher international education systems and also make Zambia’s higher education system operate in a globalised learning environment. Thus, the recognition of qualifications and credits as provided for in the Higher Education Authority Act should enable students to move from one international higher education systems to another and compete favourably both on the local and international labour market and industry.
Private universities also have a duty to improve on the quality of their teaching, research and reputation performance by investing highly in quality teaching and research staff, proper library infrastructure and ICTs if they are to earn local and international credibility. Public universities such as the University of Zambia and the Copperbelt University which had been the only mandated institutions to provide university education in Zambia before the repealed and replaced University Act of 1999 should also consider repositioning themselves by diversifying their source of funding (away from the traditional funding from the government), improve on research, technological innovations and scholarly publications, sustain the public private partnership initiatives in university provision, maintain close linkage between the university and industry and increase their capacity to generate new knowledge for the benefit of our country’s national development.
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