A unique approach is required when ranking Africa’s universities

Any successful ranking system must shine a light on African universities’ different priorities. Shutterstock

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.