Focus on niche areas and unique strengths

Can universities in Africa build excellent departments or schools that could be counted among the top 100 in the world?

The immediate response one gets from most people in Africa (and the Global South) is that rankings are only for universities based in the Global North or in the most developed countries of the Global South.

This might be true. When one looks at any of the better-known rankings, the top 100 universities are normally from the USA, United Kingdom, Europe, Canada and Australia.

No developing country, other than China, has even one university in the top 100 lists. It becomes evident quite quickly that the universities on these lists all have massive budgets and also have long histories.

This, then, leads to the view that universities in Africa have no realistic chance to make it into any top 100 list. At present, there is only one African university that is knocking on that door. If this is the reality, then should we just throw our hands up and resolve that a top 100 listing is a pipe dream?

Focus on unique strengths

I would like to argue that a better option would be for African universities to focus on their unique strengths that would allow them to make it into top 100 lists in particular subjects.

When one looks at the Times Higher Education and QS Subject Rankings, one sees a number of departments or schools from South Africa and Egypt listed in the top 100.

This is an indication that there is opportunity for universities in other African countries to break into these lists.

The University of the Witwatersrand (or Wits), Johannesburg , in South Africa, which is my home university, has a number of its departments (subject fields) listed in the top 100 produced by the two ranking organisations.

By looking at how has this been achieved, we might be able to provide some pointers to universities in other African countries to work towards these 100 lists.

Looking at the subjects in which Wits is highly ranked, the first thing that will be noticed is that the subjects are mostly in niche areas – mining engineering, development studies, areas studies, archaeology, anthropology and clinical medicine. Each of these became strengths at the university in different ways.

The school of mining was established in 1896 in the town of Kimberley in South Africa’s Northern Cape province where diamonds were being mined.

After gold was discovered in Johannesburg, the school moved to the new epicentre of the South African mining industry, Johannesburg.

As Johannesburg developed into a proper town, the school morphed into a fully fledged university in 1922. The school has always been an important area of study at Wits University throughout its 100 years of existence.

Most of the world’s experts in deep mining are based at the school. This did not happen by accident but rather because some of the deepest mines in the world are found in close proximity to the university.

Over time, the gold in the area started to become scarce, so the focus of the school changed from the actual techniques of mining to some of the other issues related to mining.

The school started to look at rehabilitation of old mines, at the acid water issues related to mining, and to the mining of new metals like the platinum group.

A very recent development has been the use of robotics and related computer technologies in mining.

Rankings are normally based on publications, citations and reputation surveys. The school has a number of collaborations with some of the best mining schools in the world, resulting in a number of highly cited publications.

These collaborations lead to more exposure for the research being done at the school which, in turn, leads to favourable scores on reputation surveys.

Archaeology and anthropology

In the fields of archaeology and anthropology, Wits University has been fortunate that some of the world’s best-known pre-human fossils were discovered not far from the university when it was still developing.

This, together with the mining heritage, meant that it was easy to allocate funds to areas of study related to the earth sciences cluster.

The funding helped to attract postgraduate students and researchers from all over the world. Soon the focus expanded from pre-human fossils found not far from the university to other archaeological digs all over South Africa.

The vast number of cave paintings found in many parts of South Africa opened up another area of research for the university.

These new areas of research required special research techniques that were not yet adequately developed at the university.

For example, the school of archaeology had to enter into collaborations with some of the best universities in the world to carry out dating of the fossils. This, in turn, brought in new researchers who were interested in studying the fossils.

About 10 years ago, Wits decided to digitise all its fossil collections, which enabled researchers to study the fossils from the comfort of their own laboratories in their own patch of the world.

Again, all these activities resulted in an increase in highly cited publications, with an added advantage that the work of researchers in these schools was being published in prestigious journals like Nature and Science.

The more the researchers published, the more their reputations flourished – with the result being better scores in reputation surveys.

The increased collaboration also helped researchers like Professor Christopher Henshilwood and Professor Lee Berger to achieve Highly Cited status. Very few researchers in Africa have achieved this status, which also helps improve the school’s reputation.

Equitable partnerships

Development studies and area studies are new research areas involving cross-disciplinary research. This brings a number of excellent researchers from various faculties together, to work in these areas.

As new research areas, it is easier for a university to develop a footprint in the field, because all universities are starting from the same point – although those with larger budgets have an advantage.

As universities in Africa are in cash-scarce environments, it is best to develop a number of solid collaborations with universities from the Global North. There are many researchers at these universities who are interested in doing research in Africa.

To ensure that African university schools get a favourable ranking, it is paramount that the collaboration be based on an equitable partnership. It is well known that many researchers from the north come to Africa to collect data and then publish their findings with no involvement from any African researchers.

Wits University’s schools have been encouraged to enter into only those partnerships which are equitable, meaning that there are a number of jointly authored papers published, which then stimulates new collaborations and sustains the cycle.

Health research in Africa

The faculty of health sciences at Wits University has an excellent reputation around the world because of the excellent graduates that it produces, including in the top-100 ranked school of clinical medicine.

Faculty graduates can be found at many of the top 100 universities, which helps to facilitate productive collaborations.

The faculty runs a number of clinical trials for some of the pharmaceutical companies in Europe and the USA.

These result in many publications, which at times have more than 100 authors, with the knock-on effect of increased exposure for the faculty.

Besides these clinical trials and the excellent undergraduate and specialist training of doctors, the faculty also pays special attention to health issues that are prevalent in South Africa – HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and public health issues are a focus of the faculty’s research.

In all these cases, we see that the focus is on research areas that are unique to Wits University’s environment.

The university identifies a core group of researchers in a particular focus area and the group is provided with moderate funding and encouraged to apply for large grants from international foundations or through inter-governmental grants.

These actions have helped to develop productive collaborations, resulting in a number of jointly authored publications that give the Wits department or school international publicity. The publicity, in turn, results in better reputation scores.

African universities could exploit a number of research areas to help them attain 100 rankings in those areas. Some that come to mind are: wildlife; water; solar energy; sustainability studies; inequality studies; urban studies; and public health areas like Ebola, vaccine development and indigenous medicine.

A number of African universities, including Wits, have come together under the banner of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) to ensure the development of better and more productive collaborations with universities on other continents.

ARUA has identified 13 focus areas that are unique to Africa but also have international implications (these are listed on the ARUA website).

It is hoped that this will see an increase in the number of African universities in top 100 subject rankings.

Dr Mahomed Moolla is the head of the strategic partnership office at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. This is a commentary.