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Opinions of Saturday, 5 February 2011


Can African Universities Compete?

16th September 2010
By Phil Baty

Africa’s universities barely feature in the rankings. Some think that for
them to even attempt to join the rankings race is a waste of resources
that should be focused on improving lives in the communities they serve.

“African universities face enormous challenges,” says Goolam Mohamedbhai.
As a former secretary general of the Association of African Universities,
former president of the International Association of Universities and
acknowledged expert on higher education across the continent, he is well
placed to make the assessment.

“Africa inherited a higher education system that was a carbon copy of
[that of] the powers that colonised it. Right from the beginning, Africa
started on a wrong footing – well behind the starting line, so to speak.

“Despite all the political and economic turmoil it has gone through since
independence – often of its own making – it is now expected to compete on
a completely non-level playing field. Not only is this unfair, it is also
inappropriate,” says Mohamedbhai, who has also served as vice-chancellor
of the University of Mauritius.

“One could argue that other regions that were also colonised – South Asia,
Latin America – are doing reasonably well. However, none of these regions
suffered from the sort of exploitation that Africa underwent and continues
to experience.”

A Global Research Report on Africa produced by Thomson Reuters, Times
Higher Education’s data supplier for the World University Rankings, sets
the context in dramatic terms.

Africa has more than 50 nations, hundreds of languages and a welter of
ethnic cultural diversity, the report points out. It is a continent with
abundant natural resources that is also plagued by the now-familiar litany
of post-colonial woes: poverty, political instability, corruption, disease
and armed conflicts frequently driven by ethnic and tribal divisions, the
report says.

Its educational outlook as a whole looks bleak. More than half the
continent is off course to meet or is relinquishing advances made towards
the goal of ensuring universal primary education by 2015, Thomson Reuters
says, and Africa has “haemorrhaged talent” for too long.

“Many of its best students take their higher degrees at universities in
Europe, Asia and North America. Too few return. The African diaspora
provides powerful intellectual input to the research achievements of other
countries but returns less benefit to the countries of birth,” the report

“Science and technology are critical not only to the continent’s economic
prosperity but also to such matters as food security, disease control,
access to clean water and environmental sustainability…The volume of
[research] activity remains small, much smaller than is desirable if the
potential contribution of Africa’s researchers is to be realized for the
benefit of its populations.”

Chris Brink, vice-chancellor of Newcastle University in the UK and the
former head of Stellenbosch University in South Africa, says that, with
the exception of South Africa, “the trajectory of higher education in
Africa, particularly sub-Sahara, is quite depressing, and the prognosis is
not particularly good. Nor is the situation helped by the developed world
mining Africa for human resources just as efficiently as it has been
mining it for natural resources.”

Martin Hall, vice-chancellor of the UK’s University of Salford and a
former deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, says it is a
“bitter irony” that “large numbers of talented academics from Africa have
to pursue their careers in Europe and North America, where they make a
significant contribution to the ranking and recognition of universities in
these continents”.

Across Africa in general, he says: “Universities have been chronically
under-resourced for more than half a century, and they can often no longer
afford books and journal subscriptions for their libraries.

“Academics working in these conditions hardly enjoy a level playing field
in a game where the conventions of research and mutual recognition count
for so much.”

South Africa is the exception, the continent’s one higher education bright
spot. It has a system that can compete with the world’s best: the
University of Cape Town is ranked joint 107th among the global top 200

“South Africa has, arguably, the continent’s strongest higher education
system, and it’s not surprising that the University of Cape Town is in the
top 200 again,” Hall says. “But South Africa’s universities also serve a
society that is now one of the most unequal in the world, and this means
that other universities in the country have missions that are vitally
important for social and political mobility, and [pursuing these aims]
will not result in the specific forms of recognition that are measured by
world ranking systems.”

As Mohamedbhai sees it, however, not even South Africa’s current strength
can be taken for granted.

“Why are only some universities in South Africa getting globally ranked?”
he asks. “The answer lies again in the colonial attitude adopted during
the apartheid years, when education was the prerogative of only the
minority affluent white people.

“There is no doubt that South African higher education will soon be facing
the same challenges that other African countries face. There is a serious
shortage of PhDs and research output in Africa, with only a few
universities producing high-level research while the others have no human
and physical resources to do so.”

In light of the continent’s urgent problems, Mohamedbhai thinks that
African universities should absent themselves from the race to rise up the
rankings and focus their efforts on immediate needs.

“Do African universities need to be ranked globally? I don’t think so.
Their mission should be to produce the appropriate manpower required for
Africa’s development, to undertake research that is of direct relevance to
Africa – which may not be acceptable for publication in the best
scientific journals – and to reach out to assist the communities in the
many challenges they are facing, especially poverty reduction.

“None of these fits the criteria used for global ranking. African
universities have a duty to serve their countries and region first before
seeking global glory. The tragedy is that many African governments,
blinded by the prestige of global rankings, are challenging their
universities to be ranked without understanding the consequences of the
grossly inappropriate use of resources that that would entail.

“At the end of the day, this brings us back to the very purpose of higher
education in a country. Not all universities in the world can have the
same mission. Priorities are different in different countries, and
universities must not be forced to conform to a single model of a
world-class university.