A number of fault lines have emerged and deepened in university systems around the world. One is the cost of education.
From the Chilean Winter, to South Africa’s #FeesMustFall, to the USA’s ticking time bomb of student debt, to more recent calls in Kenya for higher university fees, the issue of prohibitive tuition costs has become a recurrent and perhaps an existential problem for public and private universities.
There is another, perhaps more insidious, but no less urgent issue: university rankings. Global university rankings have been found to discourage localisation by creating blanket standards for all universities, irrespective of their institutional aims and national contexts.
This suggests that global rankings do not accurately represent individual universities, or the national higher education ecosystems in which they operate. Consequently, there tends to be little evolution in how universities stack up against one another, with mostly the same institutions topping the list each year.
This is apparent in the case of African universities. Africa is the only region in the world devoid of either national or regional ranking systems. In the absence of their own rankings, the only real yardstick is global rankings, in which they consistently fare poorly, with the exception of a few.
That said, even the higher performing universities rarely break into the top echelons: only University of Cape Town made it to the top 200 in Times Higher Education’s 2022 university rankings, featuring at 183.
This lack of representation in global rankings has real consequences. A case in point is the UK government’s latest scheme to attract international global talent, where graduates awarded degrees from a list of eligible institutions can now apply for two- or three-year work visas, depending on the level of their academic qualifications. No African university made it to any of the lists dating back five years.
Do some things differently
Should African universities continue to strive to compete in global rankings? Sure. But, equally, it is time for Africa to generate its own definitions and metrics for what constitutes a successful African university in the 21st century. And with the ability to assess existing rankings, Africa has the chance to do some things differently and, in doing so, get some things right. Hopefully.
An impactful university ranking cannot, however, be conjured out of thin air; nor can it simply be superimposed onto existing systems. Rather, the creation of an African university ranking — whether continental, regional, or national — will have to occur in tandem with some seismic shifts to the status quo.
Admittedly, this will not be an easy task. But change — even radical change — is possible, with a holistic view and a long-term approach. A university ranking for Africa need not be something entirely novel: it can be built on a foundation of existing variables that are relevant for African contexts. Quality of teaching and education is likely to be a universally relevant dimension.
Meanwhile, other dimensions may be applicable. In a continent where countries contend with high youth unemployment rates, universities might be judged according to their ability to equip students to secure employment and entrepreneurship opportunities.
Isaac Fokuo is Founder & Principal while Aparupa Chakravarti is Director, Botho Emerging Markets Group