SOUTH AFRICA: Universities set priorities for research

South Africa is among three dozen countries that make it into the top 500 of world university rankings. Unable to compete against the best on Earth across all fields, some local universities are building excellence in a few disciplines where they are able to shine internationally – and thereby attract top researchers and students.

Four South African universities – 17% of the country’s institutions – are ranked in the top 500 of the 2007 Shanghai Jaio Tong rankings. For the first time this year, an African university made it into the Times Higher Education Supplement-QS top 200: Cape Town squeaked in at number 200.

The universities listed by Shanghai Jiao Tong are: Cape Town (253), the Witwatersrand (398), KwaZulu-Natal (475) and Pretoria (487). The only other ranked African institution is Cairo University in Egypt (406).

In terms of numbers of universities in the Shanghai rankings, this places South Africa ‘ahead’ of countries such as Russia, Poland, Greece, Hungary, Czech, Turkey, India, Singapore, Mexico, Argentina and Chile; on a par with Norway; and just behind New Zealand, Hong Kong, Finland and Brazil.

In its cluster, the University of Cape Town ranks near the universities of Auckland in New Zealand, Bath and Dundee in Britain, two top-rated Spanish universities, Bochum in Germany, Bologna in Italy and Calgary in Canada.

But South Africa’s 23 universities, although often very large in terms of student numbers, are “very small in terms of research capacity”, said Professor Anastassios Pouris, director of the Institute for Technological Innovation at the University of Pretoria.

“It is terribly difficult to compete across the board with the very best universities in the world, which have huge resources. Instead, some of our research universities are specialising in particular disciplines where they have strengths.

“A university can be near the top 100 worldwide in one or two disciplines, even if it is not in the top 100 university rankings, enabling it to attract strong researchers and students in that field,” Pouris told University World News. His University of Pretoria has set a priority on engineering and science, areas in which it excels.

While often surrounded by controversy, and admittedly constrained by their own criteria, Pouris believes university rankings nevertheless provide grounds for evaluation. He notes they are used by students, employers and others to inform decisions about universities.

“Officially, universities say they are not influenced by or interested in rankings. Unofficially, many compete strongly and take steps to be part of the lists. The reason is marketing, in the competition to attract the best researchers and students. Rated universities advertise their positions, while others find reasons why rankings should not apply to them.”

Last year, Pouris conducted a South African research ranking exercise, investigating the disciplinary strengths and international standing of local universities by measuring their inclusion in the top 1% of world institutions cited in the international scientific literature.

Pouris interrogated the 2005 US Essential Science Indicators (ESI) database of the Institute for Scientific Information. The ESI provides information on the top 1% of most cited institutions worldwide during the most recent 10 years across 22 scientific fields (each field has a citation frequency threshold of 1%).

He reported his findings in the Netherlands-based International Journal of Higher Education and Planning. South Africa ranked 36 out of 147 countries whose universities made the ESI citation thresholds. Pouris identified six universities that were included to a certain extent in the top 1% of the ESI, with citation ‘footprints’ in nine of the 22 broad scientific disciplines (institutions have to qualify in all scientific fields to be listed in the database).

The universities were Cape Town, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Pretoria, Stellenbosch and the Witwatersrand (Wits). Wits met the threshold in seven scientific fields, Cape Town in six, Pretoria and KwaZulu-Natal in four, and Stellenbosch and Free State in two.

While other South African universities produced internationally visible research, they did not make the top 1% threshold in any discipline. All six universities that did, had a presence in clinical medicine, and in plant and animal science. Three institutions – Cape Town, Pretoria and KwaZulu-Natal – were listed in environment and ecology, and three (Cape Town, Wits and KwaZulu-Natal) in the social sciences.

Pretoria and Wits had a presence in engineering, and Cape Town and Wits in geosciences, while Cape Town was the only university that met the threshold in biology and biochemistry, and only Wits was listed for chemistry and for materials science.

In environment and ecology, Cape Town was ranked 103 among the world’s universities; in geosciences Wits was ranked 166 worldwide; and in plant and animal science Cape Town was ranked 188 and Pretoria 200 in the world.

Pouris’ research led him to conclude that South Africa was not effectively supporting fields of research in which it excels. That was because the government is not sufficiently focused on areas of established excellence, is not pumping enough funding into university-based research and is not properly implementing the research priorities that it identifies.

“We need to put our money where our mouth is,” he said.