Why our varsities score poorly in global rankings

Early this year, the Cybermetric Lab from the Spanish national research council, released the most prominent ranking of world universities involving over 28,000 institutions. Most Kenyan universities, I guess, must have avoided checking their global positioning—no one can brave a rank that looks like a barcode. On February 7, 2020, The Standard wrote an editorial in which it challenged our universities to rethink their global positioning. This is an overdue conversation.

So, Webometrics, who are you and who permitted you to compare us with MIT, Harvard and Yale—you should have consulted us and at least get someone to represent our interests in that committee? Why don’t you use marathonometrics so that we squash everyone under the universe? 

Webometrics is a ranking criterion based on the university web presence, visibility and web access. The objective of the ranking is to ensure universities' web presence is adopted to support electronic open access initiatives for publications and other scholarly materials locally and globally.

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The criteria gauge how strongly a university presence is based on its web domain, sub-pages, rich files, scholarly articles and related knowledge resources. It uses web presence as an indicator of commitment of universities and scholars. There are other ranking systems such as Global University Ranking, the Quacquarelli Symonds, the US News, and World Ranking. But all rely on data hewn from Webometrics—this alone makes Webometrics a chief priest of all university ranking criteria.

But why do we rank poorly? Let me hit this leviathan on the head outrightly. Our universities are largely teaching-intensive institutions that concentrate on recruiting consumers of both knowledge resources and other products— recruiting graduates to fill the high demand for the industrial workforce. I mean graduates who have skills in seeking jobs instead of creating jobs.

Second, our lecturers are either in halls teaching or moonlighting. After spending half of their lifetime gobbling books—they resolve to spend the remainder of their lives chasing an extra shilling to augment their dismal salaries. Case rested.

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Third, there is no third-party support for our institutions of higher learning to produce knowledge resources. In countries such as Germany, US, France and Belgium, it is a culture for the industry to support research institutions through funding. I noted recently that students’ attachment and internships are becoming a booming economy—our students are now required to pay some organisations for industrial attachment. This shows the industry is not ready to support our institutions of higher learning.

Moreover, a ruthless form of brain-drain still thrives. Our best brains and university faculty get scholarships and fellowships abroad. Notably, the majority of our scholars went for their master's, PhD and postdoctoral studies abroad. Their theses, dissertations and other publications are archived in the global north repositories affiliated to their host institutions and sponsors.

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Once these scholars come home, they continue teaching and glory in their 'recent' publications, from theses and dissertations they wrote while in Germany, the US, France and recently China and South Africa. Such publications and knowledge resources cannot count at home—they count abroad in the ranking metrics.

Moreover, the most painful of all is when foreign institutions retain the best brains for a few years after completing their studies. They use them in their productive age to generate knowledge resources after which they are sent home to teach our students how to consume foreign knowledge resources—bringing with them foreign reference materials and encouraging them to quote foreign scholars in dissertations. Our few published scholars are never cited, and defence panellists berate graduates who cite Kenyan scholars in their theses.

Finally, some aspects count on Webometrics such as regular archiving of our scientific and other knowledge researches, search engine friendly web designs, interlinking, and content creation, and rich media files in our universities’ websites. These aspects have been a big challenge because our universities lack content in the form of knowledge resources.

Kenya requires a multi-pronged solution if we dream of ranking well on Webometrics. Unless the government, the industry and the institutions of higher learning work together in developing a model for knowledge resources production, we will continue ranking dismally in these metrics.

Dr Ndonye is head of Mass Communication Department, Kabarak University

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