-1What Knowledge Activism Looks Like on the Continent of Africa

The first Africa Universities Summit—sponsored by Times Higher Education over a month ago—is still in the news!

Four African universities are listed in the Times Higher Education Rankings of the top 400 universities in the world! At the summit held at the University of Johannesburg, Times Higher Education proposed criteria for global rankings of African universities. The revised rankings combine citation scores from Elsevier’s Scopus database with a wider range of performance metrics designed to meet the region’s specific challenges. The result was predictable in that better funded universities in South Africa ranked among the top. In a Times Higher Education report Ellie Bothwell noted that to be included in the top 30, “an institution must have published a minimum of 500 research papers in the five-year period assessed, with at least fifty papers per year”.[1]

While Phil Baty, editor of the Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings, told those attending the summit that criteria for rankings could be adjusted to take into account research agendas and priorities of the African continent. And then, nonetheless, the rankings proposal has created a vigorous debate.

Chris Havergal with Times Higher Education reported on the findings of Professor David Mfinanga, deputy vice-chancellor of administration at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Mfinanga said that, “citation scores, which the World University Rankings draw heavily on, were a challenging measure for African institutions because they followed a distinct research agenda. While malnutrition may be an important research area for African academics, it may be less of a priority for journals based elsewhere in the world”.[2]

Tyrone Pretorius, Vice Chancellor and Rector at the University of the Western Cape stated that the rankings are tracking the wrong criteria for African universities. Pretorius makes a case for collaboration more than citations as he refers to “the continental action plan adopted in Dakar”.[3] This plan calls for the development of 200 hubs, or centres of excellence. He writes, “These institutions should produce knowledge, encourage active citizenship and work to meet the continent’s needs. The plan also recognises that producing PhD graduates is key to growing Africa.”[4] Pretorius emphasizes collaboration and social impact describing a very different academic culture than has been fostered in either North America or Europe, where competition is of greater value than social impact. Pretorius concludes, “Any successful ranking system should also incentivise institutions to commit themselves to contributing to positive and constructive outcomes for their graduates, communities, countries – and their continent”.[5]

The global rankings of African universities have also provoked a competitive nationalistic debate across the continent of Africa. Last week, in a Nigerian newspaper, Reuben Buhari, noted the dismay of many Nigerians that only one Nigerian university showed up in the proposed rankings. Buhari writes, “For Nigeria, a country with the 26th biggest economy in the world and the largest in Africa, why should only one Nigerian university appear at a dismal eight position out of the top ten universities in Africa?”[6] Nigerians are angry because, as Buhari writes, “The fact that universities from South Africa, Egypt, Morocco and Kenya were all ahead of Nigerian universities is poignant testimony that our educational status has really dipped, but more telling is the fact that very small countries, in terms of population, resources and advancement are ahead of several Nigerian universities in the overall 100 ranking”.[7] In every country in Africa, the scholarly rankings of African universities also have political and budgetary ramifications.

As readers note, there are many African higher education administrators who have responded to the proposed rankings of Africa’s universities. Damtew Teferra, Professor of Higher Education at University of KwaZulu-Natal, sees one major flaw with the proposed rankings and recent debates: African higher education experts are not at the design table! Teferra puts it bluntly and powerfully with decolonial resonances, “Powerful forces far beyond Africa’s shores continue to muscle through their interventions, pursue their own interests and even organize events on behalf of the continent without bringing the key and designated institutions to the table. If these international rankers wish to gauge capacity, output, trajectories and trends of Africa’s universities they should closely engage and consult with recognized and mandated continental and regional higher education bodies. These include the Association of African universities, the Association of West African Universities, the African and Malagasay Council for Higher Education and the Inter-University Council for East Africa, among others. Part of what happens once they arrive at the table must be a serious, honest, open and explicit conversation about whether Africa should even bother with these ranking fads at this time – or ever.”[8]

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[1] Ellie Bothwell, “Top 30 African universities: Times Higher Education reveals snapshot university ranking”, July 31, 2015, https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/.

[2] Chris Havergal, “Africa university ranking could drive sector’s development”, August 4, 2015, https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/.

[3] Tyrone Pretorius, “A unique approach is required for ranking Africa’s universities, August 21, 2015, The Conversation Africa Pilot, https://theconversation.com/a-unique-approach-is-required-when-ranking-africas-universities-46216.

[4] Pretorius, “A unique approach is required for ranking Africa’s universities”.

[5] Pretorius, “A unique approach is required for ranking Africa’s universities”.

[6] Reuben Buhari, “Why Nigerian Universities Are Ranked Low”, August 29, 2015, Leadership, http://leadership.ng/features/457056/why-nigerian-universities-are-ranked-low.

[7] Buhari, “Why Nigerian Universities Are Ranked Low”

[8] Damtew Teferra, “Ranking African universities is a futile endeavor”, September 3, 2015, Sowetan Live, http://www.sowetanlive.co.za/news/2015/09/03/ranking-african-universities-is-a-futile-endeavour.

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