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Grading Universities According To Rank, Status And Impact

The Oasis Reporters

June 14, 2019

Emeritus professor Bolanle Awe (from left),
award winning Professor of medicine Olufunmilayo Olopade, OON. A hematology oncologist in University of Chicago (middle), Emeritus professor Grace Alele-Williams (right).
Strength of character saw them through. They were recently honoured by University of Ibadan in November 2018.
Photo credit: Sholloms studio.
By MD Aminu, PhD

As desirable as an education is, prospective candidates attend whichever university they choose for various reasons.
Incontestable though, is the fact that education is a way of unlocking our full potential for vertical and upward social mobility. But beyond this essential motive, there could be other reasons why one person desires to be in a given university while another person chooses to be in the other institution. One of these reasons that influences the choice of prospective candidates is the ranking of universities which is often conducted by making comparisons between their standards. When universities are ranked, some of the performance indicators used for that purpose may include teaching (e.g. the learning environment, staff to student ratio, etc.), research output (e.g. volume, reputation, income, etc.), citations (e.g. research impact, scaled-up implications, practicability, etc.), international spread (e.g. diversity in terms of staff and students, research, etc.), collaborations with the industry (e.g. grants, knowledge transfer, etc.). The rankings are often conducted by publications as “Times Higher Education World Rankings”; “The Times World Rankings”; “The Complete University Guide”; “The Guardian”; etc.

Because of our obsessions with university rankings, a friend who is about to begin his doctoral studies is at liberty to attend any UK university of his choice. He wants to attend Imperial College in London, obviously for the age-old prestige and value for money that he hopes to get from the institution, although he is having second thoughts about Imperial College since his attendance will certainly involve living in or around London with his young family-a task that is too expensive for him to handle, in financial terms.

He then asked me to advise him. I advised that he can attend another UK university, which is not Imperial College, and yet have a very good doctorate degree which is equivalent to that of Imperial College. It is important to note that at the doctorate level, it is critical to consider several factors aside from the university’s ranking, to make a choice of where to go to. The doctorate is a highly specialized degree; as such that high specialty that is sought after by a prospective student may not be necessarily found, all the time, in the highly ranked universities.

While chances are that the most favorably ranked universities would give effective support to students in terms of the research they will be conducting, nevertheless, there are exceptions, which calls for caution and further considerations.
Some examples are helpful to buttress this point. At the time my father was about to start his doctoral study in the early to mid-1980s, he was advised by an expert in his field that the best universities in the UK for his area of research were The University of Stirling (Scotland), Aston University (Birmingham) and The University of Wales (Cardiff). At the time he attended Cardiff, it was arguably the best institution in which to conduct research on freshwater fisheries-his area of study. Cardiff had some of the best experts at the time, including Professor R.J.H. (Raymond John Heaphy) Beverton (1922-1995). Beverton’s book, entitled “On the Dynamics of Exploited Fish Populations”, contained much of the foundations of quantitative fisheries science. Beverton was involved in several projects and papers, some of which were published after his death. He was also known for bringing about the Beverton-Holt model-a model used in population ecology. The Fisheries Society of the British Isles awards a yearly medal called the Beverton Medal “to a distinguished scientist for a lifelong contribution to all aspects of the study of fish biology and/or fisheries science, with a focus on ground-breaking research.” Beverton was/is the best in fisheries biology, and my father had the privilege to study in his department.

I attended Cranfield University for my doctorate in energy, environment and climate change, with a specialty in carbon capture and storage. Cranfield is not found in popular university rankings. Since Cranfield is a postgraduate only university (the only of its type in Britain), making direct comparisons with other universities which normally have undergraduate programs is problematic. But, be that as it may, I am not sure that because I attended an unranked university, my doctoral thesis would have failed the award if it was taken to the highly ranked UK universities. The academic who examined my thesis earned his own doctorate from Imperial College and he works with the University of Aberdeen. My research was also worthy enough to be published in journals where academics from, say, Imperial College, publish. In those journals where I published my work, the editors and members of the editorial boards include academics from prestigious brands as Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University College London, University of Cambridge, Imperial College, etc. Additionally, my work was cited from different places in the world including one citation from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (New Mexico, USA) of the Manhattan Project fame.

More so, my friend, Musa Abba Jato, also earned his doctorate degree from the University of Brighton recently, after his thesis was examined by a professor and Head of School in the University of Manchester. In this case, it will be disingenuous to claim that because Manchester is more highly rated over Brighton, my friend’s doctorate would have failed the award if it was presented as a Manchester thesis. Therefore, at the doctorate level, the choice of ‘what university amongst universities’ to attend should be carefully considered, as opposed to the case if anyone was considering studying for taught degrees such as a bachelors’ or masters’. In contrast with taught degrees where contribution to knowledge is not expected, the doctorate is different in that it is expected to impact on the community of scholars in the discipline. Thus, where to make impact the most is more important than the age-old prestige of the institution of study, unless, of course, a good correlation exists (and rightly so, most times) between the highly ranked universities and the impact anyone person’s research will make to the discipline.

Originally published as : Doctoral Study: Why University Rankings Are Important (Daily Trust)

Greg Abolo

Blogger at The Oasis Reporters.

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