Rankings could help students to choose where to study

African countries should consider increasing investments in their universities to upgrade learning and research facilities and to attract high-quality and talented academic staff, as there appears to be no overall improvement in the continent’s higher education landscape, according to QS Quacquarelli Symonds, which produces the annual QS World University Rankings.

Jack Moran, spokesperson and member of the rankings steering committee at QS Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), told University World News that, whereas the surveyed African universities performed well in certain fields within the humanities and social sciences, top scores in most of the surveyed subjects were scarce.

“We see African universities achieve in development studies, theology, English language and literature, but not in engineering or the other hard sciences,’’ said Moran.

He singled out the mineral and mining engineering programmes at the University of Pretoria and the University of the Witwatersrand, both in South Africa, as the only engineering departments in African universities that were highly rated.

More targeted investments

According to Moran, if African countries want their universities to be globally competitive and highly ranked, they should follow the direction taken by countries such as Russia, China, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Singapore, where universities have had visibility improved through targeted investments.

But comprehensive datasets of the African universities indicate that higher education institutions could build on several key scientific fields.

Although only a few institutions are included in the top 1,000 worldwide, in terms of the overall research, teaching, employability and internationalisation, criteria that analysts used to determine how a university performed in several areas, some universities, especially some smaller ones, did well in the ratings.

Matching students and institutions

For instance, the QS Stars University Ratings provided a detailed look at an institution, thereby enabling a student, or any interested party, to identify which universities are the best in specific criteria that include the strength of the programmes, facilities, graduate employability and social responsibility.

“This aspect recognises that each student is looking for something different, and not all universities, including the highly ranked ones suit every student,” stated QS in its briefing.

Still, the QS World University Rankings by subject help students to identify the leading universities in particular academic fields of study.

In this regard, datasets on African universities reveal that some universities offer high-quality education in certain academic areas.

For instance, granted that there are no universities in Africa that are regarded as global centres of excellence in engineering fields — besides minerals and mining — seven universities in South Africa, namely, the University of Cape Town, the University of the Witwatersrand, the University of Johannesburg, the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Stellenbosch University, the University of Pretoria and the University of South Africa, are noted in the data as providing high-quality education in chemical engineering.

But, whereas the University of Cape Town, the University of the Witwatersrand, the University of Johannesburg, the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Stellenbosch University and the University of Pretoria had been providing quality education in medicine, they are now joined by North-West University and the University of the Western Cape, which also had health science programmes that were rated.

Subject ratings are based on clusters of subjects. Medicine includes anatomy and physiology, biological sciences, dentistry, medicine, nursing, pharmacy and pharmacology, psychology and veterinary sciences.

High-quality programmes in health sciences

Outside South Africa, other African universities that are rated as providing high-quality studies in medicine are Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia; Makerere University, Uganda; Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana; the University of Ghana; the University of Nairobi in Kenya, and the University of Zimbabwe.

One aspect that contributes to commendable ratings in medicine programmes in some universities in Sub-Saharan Africa outside South Africa seemed to point at a concentration of researchers in the fields of medical and health sciences, where research is supported through donor partnerships.

Whereas high-quality programmes in agriculture and forestry are available in five leading South African universities: the University of Cape Town, the University of Pretoria, the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Johannesburg, they were also available at Addis Ababa University, Makerere University, the University of Ghana, the University of Ibadan (Nigeria) and the University of Nairobi.

In terms of the higher education system strengths indicator, South Africa had 291 rated programmes in its universities.

This year, 75 countries were evaluated and the category was headed by the United States, followed by the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, Canada, France, the Netherlands, China, South Korea and Japan, in that order.

According to QS, the indicator assessing higher education system strengths focuses on the overall strength of higher education within each country.

But, taking into account the increasing graduate employment crisis in Africa, universities in the continent should be concerned about what kind of graduates they are producing.

Graduate employment

The current set of rankings paints a grim picture about the ability of most African universities to prepare students adequately for full-time employment by connecting them to potential employers and ensuring that they develop the necessary skills and knowledge.

In this regard, the graduate employability rankings indicator assessing graduate placement had only nine African universities in its line-up of the best 500 universities.

The African group was led by the University of Cape Town, which was placed at position 91 globally, followed by the University of the Witwatersrand at the range of 181-190, and the American University in Cairo, at the range of 191-200.

Stellenbosch University, the University of Nairobi and the University of Pretoria were placed in the range of 251-300, while Ain Shams University in Egypt, the University of Johannesburg and the University of KwaZulu-Natal were in the range of 301-500.

According to QS, the graduate employability indicator is vital as it addresses concerns that most universities globally are not preparing their students for the world of work.

But what is emerging is that African universities will have to work much harder to improve on their research impact in terms of publication citations and academic standing if they want to raise their profile and academic visibility in the rankings, as well as give confidence to their students.