Monday, October 12, 2015

On the Futility of Ranking African Universities

A more important question from the point of view of sociology of development is whether, if nations are at different levels of development, they should implement the same development strategies or whether nations should develop and implement development strategies that are appropriate to their level of development and priorities at particular historical junctures. For instance, one wonders whether some of the kind of technology exported to developing countries is truly addressing the priority of their development challenges since all technologies have a social component to them. The developer of the technology does not develop it in a social vacuum. 

In a continent that has over-supply of labor and high level of unemployment, labor-saving technology (if that is the primary goal of the technological innovation) when not thoughtfully adopted and adapted, can worsen employment problems. External interests and criteria drives the innovation in the developing countries. Those that benefit from the system continue to justify it even though from the perspective of the masses it is not making a difference, or if so, very marginal.

With regard to education I raise the issue above because Alexander Hamilton wrote a very good critique of Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" which was published in 1776 when the USA was still an agricultural society. Industrialization did not take off fully in the country until after the civil war. Hamilton in response to Smith argued that, in the long run, free trade is good, but it is only good when the nations are more or less at the same level of development.

 Thus, given that U.S. was by 1776 behind European countries and an agricultural society, he said if the U.S. were to embraced Adam Smith's economic orthodoxy prescriptions, then comparative advantage means U.S. would specialize as a producer and exporter of agricultural commodities while importing manufactures from Europe. Hamilton thought that adopting such a development strategy is not in the national and security interests of the U.S. Thus he pushed for industrialization which Thomas Jefferson refused, preferring the U.S. to remain a nation of small farmers. The debate has implication for the role of the university or public education in developing countries.

The problem with ranking is that if the same universal criteria is used for ranking, it may mean while African countries at their present level of development are trying to figure out their paths, Western nations may be imposing priorities or criteria that, while not inherently bad, are definitely not responding to the concerns and challenges of the poorest of the poor in Africa. We can have many African scholars publishing and meeting the expectations of western journals or publishers, but this may have nothing to do in terms of responding to the challenges of many of the ordinary Africans that one meets in the continent especially when you interact with people in the rural communities or social margins of the society.
Indeed, the universities may be doing well but the books published by scholars are not accessible to the majority of the citizens of the country. The university remains truly an "ivory tower." Sometimes when you are trying to figure out your own path, you of course need to be aware of what others are doing but you need to have a certain degree of distance, autonomy and courage to define your priorities. When Sigmund Freud was trying to develop his own thoughts, he refused to read other people's work so that there will be no interference with his trend of thought and research orientation and he ended up producing something unique.

Alasdair MacIntyre argues that every kind of practice has its own standards of excellence, which is internal to the practice. A university in, for instance, Jigawa State, Nigeria, can function well as a university and be excellent in its own way but not by doing what a university in Lagos, the commercial center of Nigeria or even sub-region is doing. One can make the same observation for different regions of Kenya and Ghana for example. Each university should in my view, as Frantz Fanon said, discover for itself out of relative obscurity and historical moment what is its primary mission for its environment. And once it figures that out, it can pursue excellence in that respect or betray the purpose. 

An examination of the history of U.S. universities will show how they have changed across historical time depending on the challenges that the nation faced at any particular historical moment. There was a time when they had to introduce courses related to minorities because it was a meaningful way to address the pressing challenges of the nation. To impose development policy or criteria that is meant for advanced nations to nations still wrestling with basic issues of development is a kind of systematic distortion of a people's effort, even when it is genuine.

African universities and scholars can learn from all sources of knowledge, adopt and adapt them to their realities, but the public university has a fundamental role to serve the people in its society who are indirectly funding it. Using evaluation criteria that might mean great success for some people while not touching the lives of the masses is not only elitist but out of touch and a kind of epistemological violence.


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