University rankings – The Nigerian experience

The absence of nearly all African universities from global ranking systems has been of major concern to potential students, parents, employers and other stakeholders, who feel locked out of making informed choices on the quality of universities in Africa.

But Nigeria – which has one of the largest higher education systems on the continent, comprising 128 universities – has established a national ranking system, the first of its kind in Africa.

In 2001 Nigeria’s National Universities Commission, or NUC, developed a set of indicators of verifiable data that could help prospective students to make career choices.

“There was also the desire by the government to have a transparent and objective mechanism for identifying centres for excellence that could benefit from preferential funding,” said Professor Peter Okebukola, a former executive secretary of the NUC, in a study on Nigeria’s experience of ranking published in UNESCO’s recent report on Rankings and Accountability in Higher Education: Uses and misuses.

The indicators and subsequent action

The NUC identified key indicators that included: the percentage of academic programmes in a university that enjoyed accreditation status; the proportion of academics at professorial level; research output; the proportion of foreign staff; the proportion of foreign students; internally generated revenue; and staff with outstanding academic achievements.

According to Okebukola, who spearheaded the initiative, most Nigerian universities had many unaccredited programmes.

“We proposed deliberate plans to encourage universities to drop courses that were not recognised by the National Universities Commission, the government or any internationally recognised accrediting authority,” he explained.

The indicator on the proportion of staff at professorial level was basically an assessment of the quality of academic staff, since full professorship in most universities globally constitutes a mark of quality among academics. The category was also included to encourage lecturers to study for postgraduate degrees.

The indicator on proportion of academic staff with outstanding achievements was intended to establish how a university stimulated and retained quality staff. Some of the accolades that were considered included Nobel prizes, national awards, and fellowships of academies and institutes of sciences, medicine, education and letters.

“The category gives the standing of the staff of a university when gauged with colleagues at national and international levels,” said Dr Peter Materu, an education specialist at the World Bank, in his study on higher education quality assurance in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The initial Nigerian higher education ranking mechanism also took account of academic staff research output in peer-reviewed journals, books published by respected publishing houses, innovations and patented intellectual property rights.

“Proofs of publications and patented certificates were expected to be submitted at the time when the university was being audited by the National Universities Commission,” said Okebukola.

In addition to overall student completion rates, universities were required to provide NUC inspectors with information on PhD graduate outputs each year, the stability of the university calendar, and the student-to-personal-computer ratio.

A revised ranking

In 2010 the NUC revised the ranking mechanism and replaced most of the indictors with new ones.

Some of the original indicators – those regarding the proportion of academic programmes with full accreditation status, the proportion of academic staff at full professorial level, and the proportions of international academics and students – remained intact.

Closely following templates gleaned from global exercises such as the World University Rankings and the Academic Ranking of World Universities, the NUC developed a new set of indicators, including academic peer review, faculty-student ratios, citations per faculty, graduation rates and retention of first-year students.

Other indicators were on web impact factor on students and staff, employer reviews, and alumni holding posts of chief executive or the equivalent in Forbes 500 leading international companies.

Responses to the rankings

Despite criticisms from some quarters there has been enthusiasm about the university rankings in Nigeria, especially among the general public.

“Some parents and potential students have been turning to the ranking index to identify the best universities in the country and programmes for study,” said Okebukola.

According to a survey conducted by the NUC, about 70% of students and 84% of parents are guided in selecting degree programmes by university rankings published in local newspapers.

Employers have also been using the annual league tables when selecting graduates from the best-ranked universities amid a graduate glut. Over 75% of big companies in Nigeria combine national and global rankings when short-listing job applicants for interviews.

Although harsh words come from higher education managers whose institutions are not favoured by the national ranking, the system is gaining credence among most vice-chancellors. “Academic staff unions also use ranking results to back up requests for improvement of working conditions,” said Okebukola.

Generally, the effect of the national university ranking has been positive, and it has been used by most tertiary institutions to request more funding from the government to improve learning, teaching and research facilities.

The government has also been using the ranking system to identify centres of excellence in various fields. The NUC estimates that the government has improved learning facilities in public universities by about 30% since the national ranking was initiated.

In a nutshell, national ranking in Nigeria has been spurring competition among universities.

As Professor Olusola Oyewole, higher education senior expert at the African Union Commission, has pointed out, resistance to university rankings is not about to disappear. But the number of supporters is growing.

Nigeria has taken a solid step in the rankings direction, not just to fill the African void in global ranking systems, but also to start tackling issues of quality in African universities.