Universities in six countries feature in subject rankings

Seventeen departments in African universities are among the world’s top-100 places to study the subjects that they offer, according to the 13th edition of the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2023 that were released in March.

Datasets showed that 22 African universities in six countries, Egypt (10) South Africa (8), Ghana (1), Kenya (1), Nigeria (1) and Uganda (1) were included in the roughly 1,500 universities that were assessed.

The Egyptian cohort included Cairo University, the American University in Cairo (AUC), Alexandria University, Al-Azhar University, Ain Shams University (ASU), and Assiut University. Others in the group were the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport, Helwan University, Mansoura University and Tanta University.

The South African group included the universities of Cape Town (UCT), Pretoria, Johannesburg, KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), Witwatersrand (Wits), and South Africa (UNISA) as well as Stellenbosch University and the International Hotel School in Pretoria.

Ibadan University in Nigeria, Makerere University in Uganda, the University of Ghana and the University of Nairobi in Kenya were other institutions ranked.

According to Ben Sowter, the senior vice president at QS, or Quacquarelli Symonds, 54 different subjects were evaluated and they were grouped in five broad thematic areas, namely arts and humanities, engineering and technology, life sciences and medicine, natural sciences, and social sciences and management.

Areas of concern?

But, whereas 44 departments at universities in Africa were ranked in various categories, departments of anatomy, art and design, classics, data science, library science, marketing, nursing, performing arts, philosophy and sports-related subjects in universities on the continent were not ranked, meaning that their academic quality was below the global rating standards.

UCT emerged as the best university in Africa in four thematic areas, namely arts and humanities, life sciences and medicine, natural sciences as well as social sciences and management, while Cairo was ranked the best university in engineering and technology.

Whereas UCT clinched 113th spot globally in life sciences and medicine, other universities in Africa such as Cairo (163), Wits (236), Stellenbosch (243), ASU (297), Pretoria (325) and KwaZulu-Natal (340) also did well.

Four other African universities were in the top-500 universities globally in life sciences and medicine. They were Alexandria (356), Mansoura (381), Ibadan (401-450) and Makerere (451-500).

In natural sciences, eight universities in Africa were among the 500 best universities globally, including Cape Town (215), Cairo (272), Wits (320), ASU (401-450), Johannesburg (401-450), Stellenbosch (401-450), KwaZulu-Natal (451-500) and Pretoria (451-500).

Further, seven South African and Egyptian universities were also among the top-500 universities in arts and humanities and listed as follows: Cape Town (192), Cairo (243), Wits (293) and AUC (320). Others in that group were Stellenbosch (333), Pretoria (341) and Johannesburg (401-450).

In the social sciences segment, UCT led the African group by being placed in position 180th globally and then behind were Cairo (227), Pretoria (283), AUC (348) and Wits (358). Stellenbosch was also in the group in 368th position, while Johannesburg was placed in the 451-500 category.

Whereas Cairo was the best university in the engineering and technology division in Africa by being placed in position 141 globally, the second position was taken by ASU (260), another Egyptian university also located in Cairo. UCT (270) was in third position, followed by Pretoria (284).

Other top universities in engineering and technology included Alexandria (327), Wits (391), Stellenbosch (401-450), Johannesburg (451-500) and Mansoura (501-530).

Strong subject areas

In terms of specific subjects, several universities had strong rankings, especially in development studies, forestry and agriculture, veterinary science and minerals and mining.

In this regard, Wits was placed 12th globally in the minerals and mining subject, which was the best ranking of any African university department or university in the current iteration of the QS rankings by subject. Pretoria, the other African university in that category, was in 35th position.

UCT was also ranked 12th globally in development studies, while eight other African universities were also highly ranked in that field. These included Wits (32), Makerere (33), Stellenbosch (51-100), Johannesburg (51-100), KwaZulu-Natal (51-100), Ghana (101-120), Nairobi (101-120) and Pretoria (101-120).

Further, Stellenbosch showed a lot of promise as it was the best ranked university in Africa in agriculture and forestry, where it was positioned 74th globally, as well as in religious studies, where it was the best university in Africa and was in the band of 51-100 globally.

If one were to go by the current rankings, university education in Africa appears to be dominated by two universities, UCT and Cairo. In spite of leading in four thematic segments, UCT was ranked the best university in Africa in a wide range of subjects.

Subject areas that UCT was placed in the first position among universities in Africa included medicine, linguistics, history, communication studies and media, and anthropology. It also led in earth sciences and marine studies, geography, physics and astronomy, geophysics, geology, environmental science, education and training, psychology and pharmacy.

Cairo was ahead in archaeology, modern languages, chemical engineering, civil engineering, electrical and electronics engineering, mechanical engineering, computer engineering and information systems. It also led in law, mathematics, statistics and operational research, economics and econometrics, materials science, chemistry, biological sciences and dentistry.

But the disturbing issue is that, whereas 18 Egyptian and South African universities demonstrated that they could compete globally, few other universities on the continent could claim to be offering high-quality education in a wide range of subjects.

In this regard, the appearance of Ghana, Ibadan, Makerere and Nairobi in those rankings was not out of the ordinary, as they are some of the oldest universities on the continent and, despite suffering financial crises and brain drain, they have continued to offer quality education – and probably should have fared even better.

Unfortunately, for decades, most universities in Africa and more so in Sub-Saharan Africa, had been operating within stringent budgets and in decaying infrastructure, despite increases in student enrolment.

But, as Sowter pointed out, progress in research and innovation outcomes in higher education could be achieved only through sustained targeted investment and international collaboration, two pillars that are currently lacking in most African universities.

The methodology that was used in the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2023 was based on five indicators, academic reputation, employer reputation and research citations. It also used h-index, a statistical measure that assessed the productivity and impact of an academic or a department.

The last indicator focuses on the ability of institutions to diversify the geography of their international research networks by establishing sustainable research partnerships with other higher education institutions.

The index was based on the set of the academic's most cited papers and the number of citations they have received in other publications, stated QS in its briefing on the rankings.

To determine academic reputation, QS researchers surveyed responses from over 130,000 academics while the employer reputation survey drew responses from 75,000 graduate employers worldwide.