A unique approach is required when ranking Africa’s universities

By Tyrone Pretorius - 24 August 2015 at 11:42 am

There is a new player on the university ranking block – and it focuses exclusively on Africa. The first Times Higher Education African ranking system was unveiled in late July during a conference in Johannesburg, South Africa. In the days leading up to the conference, a snapshot was released that showed the continent’s top institutions based on a single metric.

Both this snapshot and the bigger idea of the ranking system have already sparked widespread debate across the continent. This is in keeping with global trends: even at an international level, rankings remain a widely contested and frequently criticised practice.

But for all the complaints and despite the documented shortcomings of such systems, rankings seem likely to be with us for a while. It is crucial that institutions around Africa do not shy away from robust and critical debate while these continental rankings take shape.

Africa rising

Existing ranking systems focus on teaching and the overall learning environment; the volume of research universities produce and how much income this brings to the institution. They also track the number of times a university’s research academics are cited in journals and papers.

Other systems rate a university’s global reputation among academics and prospective employers.

To date, very few African universities have featured on these global rankings. The reasons for this are complex. One clear contributing factor is the institutions’ diverse priorities when compared to global elite research universities.

African universities are operating in developing economies. Research shows that higher education can contribute strongly to economic growth. More universities on the continent are realising that they must produce graduates who can get to work in their own countries and tackle issues like poverty and inequality.

These institutions are frequently not as well resourced as their international counterparts.

Given all of this, it is important for any African ranking system to feature a tailored range of metrics that will allow these different missions to be rewarded. It also needs to take into account how these universities are working to meet national goals and the continent’s needs.

Such a system will allow Africa to showcase its flagship institutions while also acknowledging economic contribution, civic engagement and Africa’s unique challenges in the ranking process.

For any ranking system to benefit Africa it must also seek to align itself with the broader vision that the continent has for higher education. This is articulated in the African Union’s (AU) Agenda 2063, whose theme is “The Africa We Want”.

An action plan for higher education on the continent for the same period was drafted at the first African Higher Education Summit held in Dakar during March 2015. This plan is clearly aligned with the AU’s agenda.

This kind of synergy is important. Those in the higher education sector must work together to attain targets instead of splitting their efforts and ultimately diluting the results.

In the same way, an African ranking system must be clearly linked to higher education’s ideals of relevance to society and contribution to the development agenda. The ranking system must serve as a driver of goal attainment rather than a distraction from it.

Collaboration matters

The continental action plan adopted in Dakar calls for the development of 200 hubs or centres of excellence. These institutions should produce knowledge, encourage active citizenship and work to meet the continent’s needs. The plan also recognises that producing PhD graduates will be key to growing Africa.

These two agendas must be relentlessly driven so that the continent can be competitive in the global knowledge economy. They also present a useful opportunity to investigate how a ranking system can serve as a catalyst for collaboration rather than simply promoting competition.

Collaboration is key: it will help African universities to maximise their output and impact in the context of limited resources. Universities could award joint PhDs to acknowledge and reward such collaboration.

Another area that could influence a ranking system is the social impact of an institution’s activities. So, how employable are its graduates within a field of study? Is it producing researchers that can contribute to global scientific research?

Ultimately, African universities must be dedicated to designing a contextualised system that will not only measure traditional academic performance. Any successful ranking system should also incentivise institutions to commit themselves to contributing to positive and constructive outcomes for their graduates, communities, countries – and their continent.

Tyrone Pretorius, University of the Western Cape

Tyrone Pretorius is Vice Chancellor and Rector at University of the Western Cape

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tyrone Pretorius

Tyrone Pretorius

Professor Tyrone Brian Pretorius is the 7th Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

His career history reflects extensive leadership experience in higher education. At UWC he moved through the ranks from being an Academic Assistant, to being appointed as Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Associate Professor, Professor, Head of Department, Senior Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Community and Health Sciences. In 2001 he was appointed as Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic, a position which he held until 2005. Following his career at UWC, Prof Pretorius was appointed as President and Pro Vice-Chancellor of Monash South Africa, the local campus of Monash University, Australia. In 2013 the University of Pretoria appointed him as Vice-Principal (Academic), responsible for Teaching and Learning as well as planning and resource allocation. Prof Pretorius is a Psychologist by training who earned his BA, BA (Honours) and Master of Arts (Psychology) degrees from UWC. He has published extensively in respected national and international journals in the fields of career psychology, coping, stress, statistics and research methodology. In addition, he has served as a journal editor, and authored and co-authored a number of books, monographs and chapters in books. He has been honoured by the Psychology Society of South Africa for his contribution to the discipline. He also participated in the Yale Southern Africa Fellowship programme (Yale University) and completed a Strategic Leadership Programme at Oxford University. He also holds two Doctoral degrees, a DPhil from UWC and a PhD from the University of the Free State.

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