Report shows better research profiles and ongoing challenges

Despite making notable progress in their quest to become research-oriented institutions over the past seven years, universities allied to the African Research Universities Alliance, or ARUA, largely remain undergraduate universities, in what could be a reflection of the general state of institutions across the continent.

The universities have, since 2015, recorded progress across different metrics, including their postgraduate enrolments, the proportion of female students at postgraduate level, the number of female academics, and academics with doctorates, despite their remaining “predominantly undergraduate universities”, mainly producing first-degree students.

An ARUA report assessing the research profiles of member universities between 2015 and 2021, released in November, also established that the universities have aligned their research priorities with the major challenges confronting Africa and the world, and have become research leaders in different fields of study.

These include focusing on public, environmental and occupational health, infectious diseases, environmental sciences, ecology, immunology and plant sciences, among others.

ARUA is a network of 16 selected flagship research universities in Africa with a common vision to expand and significantly enhance the quality of research carried out by African researchers. The network was inaugurated in Dakar, Senegal, in 2015.

Growth in postgraduate students

While not growing fast enough, the institutions also recorded growth in the percentage of students enrolling in postgraduate studies. In 2021, Nigeria’s Ibadan and Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa universities recorded the highest figures at 46% and 35% respectively.

Doctoral enrolments, as a percentage of total enrolments for the seven-year period covered in the report, were the highest at Ibadan at an average of 12%, followed by 7% at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa. The universities of Lagos, Nigeria, and Nairobi, Kenya, had the lowest, at below 1%.

The Kenyan institution also had the lowest percentage of females enrolled in PhDs (5%) followed by Addis Ababa University (12%) in Ethiopia.

South Africa’s Rhodes University had the highest percentage of postgraduates studying for degrees in natural sciences at an average of 37%, followed by Ibadan with an average of 17%, while the University of Nairobi (UON) had the lowest number of students in the programmes at below 2%.

The UON, however, led in terms of those enrolling for programmes in engineering and technology at 29% in 2021, while the University of Ghana had the lowest enrolment in the fields at an average of 2%.

The Kenyan university also registered the highest percentage of postgraduates in medical and health sciences – 43% in 2021, for example – followed by UCT at 28% in the same year, while the University of Mauritius trailed at 2%.

An average of 21% of the postgraduates at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) were studying agricultural sciences MScs and PhDs over the years of study, compared to the UON at about 16% of the students, while Addis Ababa trailed the group at a mere 1%.

Social sciences were relatively popular across the board, where UKZN and Tanzania’s University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM) tied at 33% in 2021, while with 9% in the same year, the University of Mauritius had the lowest number of postgraduates studying social sciences.

UKZN asserted itself as an arts postgraduate trainer, posting the highest percentage in humanities enrolments at 33% in 2021, followed by Senegal’s University of Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD) with 22% in the same year.

On the other hand, UON and South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) had the least affinity for the courses at 4% and 5% respectively during the year.

Masters and doctorates in business and economic management sciences were most preferred at the University of Ghana, enrolling an average of 44% over the seven-year period, while South Africa’s Stellenbosch University enrolled about 25% of the students in the field. The UON and Ibadan posted the lowest enrolments at around 2%.

Women are gaining ground

Overall, women trailed men in PhD studies but outperformed men at the UON where 80% of those graduating at the level were females while only 20% were men in 2021. This compared well with an average female PhD graduate figure of 60% between 2018 and 2021.

The lowest figures for female graduates with doctorates were at Addis Ababa and UCAD, where only 10% and 17% respectively of those enrolled were women.

Most of the institutions, at the same time, improved the proportion of doctoral students who completed their doctoral studies within four years, with Uganda’s Makerere University recording the highest improvement, jumping from 21.2% in 2015 to 47% in 2021. However, UCT and Rhodes were the best performers where 68% and 63% of their PhD scholars completed their studies within the prescribed time duration.

Over the period, a majority of academics at the ARUA institutions – as high as 60% – were in senior ranks working as professors, associate professors or senior lecturers, the report found. This was with the exception of Makerere, the University of Dar es Salaam and the universities of KwaZulu-Natal, Addis Ababa and Nairobi.

The UCT had the highest number of professors, associate professors and senior lecturers as a percentage of permanent academic staff followed by the UCAD at 75% and 72% respectively, while UDSM and Makerere had the lowest at 28% and 29% respectively, all figures based on the year 2021.

During the same year, only 6%, 11% and 17% of professors at Addis Ababa, Makerere and UON respectively were women, while the South African universities of UCT, Wits, Rhodes and the University of Pretoria were the best performers in the metric.

On the other hand, UCAD and Addis Ababa had the lowest number of female academic staff at only 17%, followed by UDSM in 2021, while the University of Pretoria and Stellenbosch had the highest percentage of female lecturers at 55% and 49% respectively.


Publications output also grew by an average annual growth rate of 9%, with the universities publishing over 117,715 articles over the seven-year period. The publications grew from 15,348 in 2015, to stand at 26,290 in 2021.

The slowest growth was registered in the areas that mattered most, however, in the levels of research funding with some universities witnessing both low funding and negligible change in growth in funding levels.

These include Senegal’s Cheikh Anta Diop-UCAP University, the University of Mauritius and Nigeria’s Ibadan and Lagos universities.

A similar trend representing both low growth and low numbers was recorded in terms of patents registered, with nearly all ARUA universities posting a poor showing overall, save for South Africa’s Stellenbosch University, UCT, and Wits, and Kenya’s University of Nairobi registering notable performance.

The noteworthy growth aside, co-authorship among ARUA universities remained relatively low, with the South African universities of UCT, Wits and Stellenbosch recording the highest co-authorships at 35%, 31% and 30% respectively. The majority of the other universities had a co-authoring percentage of under 24%.

Some of the objectives of the study were to collect data against research indicators and metrics with the aim of identifying gaps in institutional capacity, and raise the capacity for developing appropriate institutional structures and expertise for gathering benchmarking data, the survey leader, Professor Gerald Ouma, also the senior director for institutional planning, monitoring and evaluation at the University of Pretoria, noted.

The exercise was important in helping with the benchmarking of ARUA universities against each other, for tracking performance and for identifying areas that require interventions, he added.

It was also necessitated by the need for evidence-based decision-making and for identification of areas of strength, “internal differentiation” in institutions, resource allocation and skills development.

He observed that the findings will also help with the alignment of member universities with targets of ARUA’s objectives in its 2022-27 strategic plan as well as in supporting the objective of increasing research production to at least 5% of global output over a 10-year period.