As the start of the northern hemisphere academic year hundreds of thousands of students across Africa head to the airport. The reason for this “student exodus” is that those who can afford it head abroad for their tertiary education.
Why do they go? A survey done last year found that 71% of African students studying outside Africa thought a degree earned abroad represented a higher-level qualification than a degree at home.
The exodus can be attributed to numerous reasons. These include inadequate funding of tertiary education resulting in dilapidated campuses and obsolete study programmes that are not adapted to developments in science and technology. Other factors include an absence of research policy and insufficient resources. All these result in a perception of low quality African universities.
That more than 70% of the students interviewed had a jaundiced view of an African degree seems a bit unjust. Nevertheless, the truth is that 17% of the world’s population lives on the African continent. Yet Africa has less than 1% of the world’s top 250 universities.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are African universities, despite the financial constraints, that are getting it right.
I did an analysis of universities on the continent to establish which were strongest in terms of research output. I used published research to identify the strongest and sourced scholarly outputs statistics from the academic database SciVal.
I used a number of measures for the analysis. These included the number of scholarly outputs (academic publications), the growth of authors contributing to these outputs, the number of international co-authors and the proportion of scholarly outputs in the top 10% of academic journals. I looked at the period between 2014 to 2019.
The number of outputs represents the research productivity of academics within an institution. For their part, articles published in the top 10% of academic journals serve to quantify the quality and impact of the scholarly outputs. The level of international co-authors indicates the level of international research collaboration and global prestige of each institution.
What emerged from the analysis is the similarity in the strategic approaches the best and aspiring African universities employ to achieve an increase in both scholarly output and quality. All universities covered in the article deemed international partnerships as essential to research productivity.
The best performers
Two of the top universities in Africa for published research – also known as scholarly output – are the University of Cape Town and the University of the Witwatersrand. Both are in South Africa. They are ranked in the top 250 globally.
Both universities have between 30%-35% of all their scholarly output published in the top 10% of global academic journals. This is important for universities’ prestige as well as their finances.
Also notable was the high number of international co-authors in their outputs. At the University of Cape Town it was 60%. At the University of the Witwatersrand it was 54%.
An institution with a rapid increase in scholarly outputs is Egypt’s Zewail City of Science and Technology. Established in 2012, just over 43% of its scholarly outputs were published in the top 10% of global academic journals. In addition, 51% of all its outputs were co-authored with international institutions.
There are positive signs in Nigeria too. The University of Ibadan was the top West African university for scholarly outputs. The university has 15% of all its outputs published in the top 10% of academic journals. And 38% of its publications were co-authored with institutions in other countries.
Another institution with an increasing scholarly output rate is Covenant University, Nigeria. It’s also a relatively young institution – it was opened in 2002. Just over 8% of all its outputs were published in the top 10% of academic journals.
The fact that 31% of its publications were co-authored with institutions in other countries demonstrated a collaborative approach to research.
So how have these African universities bucked the trend, and made their voices heard outside Africa?
Six key factors
In researching the issue, I identified six lessons that can be learnt from these successful African universities:
Research excellence: The University of Witwatersrand has driven a 37% increase in its scholarly outputs over the last five years, with an emphasis on quality. The university has also adopted a strategic focus on increasing the number of post-graduate students. It aims to have post-graduates as 45% of its student population by 2022. This, in turn, has helped drive the surge in scholarly output. The university also has a clear focus on priority research areas where it can make a significant impact. An example is clinical research to manage AIDS.
Research support infrastructure: Research productivity is crucial for academic promotions within the universities. The University of Cape Town in particular has invested heavily in a pro-research infrastructure. This comes with extensive research administrative support and guidance. In Nigeria, the University of Ibadan recently established a new leadership role to focus on research and innovation.
A balance between the teaching and research workloads, possibly by restricting student intake: The University of Ibadan, for example, has adopted an approach of rigorously maintaining a student-staff ratio that ensures academic workloads allow time for research. The university has maintained an annual undergraduate intake of approximately 4,000 students. This has been despite growing pressure to increase the numbers.
Attracting the best professors and researchers: The University of the Witwatersrand has made a concerted effort to recruit professors with high citations – “A”-rated professors.
Setting levels of academic expectation: Covenant University in Nigeria has adopted a research, citations, innovation and teaching agenda that drives academic activities at all levels. There’s significant support for staff through workshops in grant writing and publication.
Zewail City of Science and Technology was founded by Nobel laurate in Chemistry, Professor Ahmed Zewail. It has four Nobel laurates as members of its Supreme Advisory Board. It’s therefore no surprise that it has a significant number of its scholarly outputs in the top 10% of global academic journals.
Forging international partnerships: The University of Ibadan, and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, also emphasise the importance of international references for professorial promotion. The University of Nigeria, Nsukka has taken the decision to actively seek collaborative international partners to mitigate the lack of research infrastructure.
As part of his research, the author also conducted interviews with: Dr Marilet Sienaert, Executive Director Research, University of Cape Town, South Africa; Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Postgraduate affairs, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa; Professor Olanike Adeyemo, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research, Innovation and Strategic Partnerships, University of Ibadan, Nigeria; Professor Salah Obayya, Zewail City of Science and Technology, Egypt; Professor Emeka Iweala, Director, Covenant University Centre for Research, Innovation and Discovery, Covenant University, Nigeria; Professor James Ogbonna, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nigeria.