How Are African Universities Doing?

South African university students protesting government education policies in December, 2015

University performance indicators trump worldwide rankings for African Universities

Worldwide rankings have come to African universities, powered by the technology of Web of Science (WoS), Scopus, and Google Scholar, the most widespread databases of scientific publications. As ranking surveys and templates arrive on the desks of university vice chancellors, and digital storage becomes cheaper, universities in developing countries are forced to keep better track of performance inputs and outputs or risk becoming invisible in the global higher education landscape. However, emphasis on climbing up the global rankings can lead to misguided missions.

Many argue that African universities are resourced at lower, incomparable scales, and local research that does not appear in global publication indexes is better for communities and government funding. For example, out of 300 South African indexed journals, only sixty-seven are included in WoS. Defining impact factor (how often an article is cited) is an additional debate. Yet as public funding is increasingly in question, it is critical for African universities and their stakeholders to provide evidence that they are contributing to development. With this aim, the Center of Higher Education Trust (CHET) Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network (HERANA) developed a set of performance indicators on flagship African universities over the last fourteen years, which was released last month at a HERANA workshop I attended in Cape Town. 

Rather than a rankings competition, these indicators are a way for African universities to assess where they are and what they want to become relative to their missions and local contexts. Tracking from 2000-2014 has shown that this set of African universities is increasing its share of knowledge production by an average 8.8 percent annually in research outputs and 7.4 percent in doctoral graduates (albeit from low bases), while increasing hiring of staff with doctorates and growing enrollment an average 7.7 percent.  Furthermore, CHET is leading the way in increased transparency by providing open data in a user-friendly format. The South African government has featured CHET data on the new Open Goverment Partnership site.  OpenAFRICA, a World Bank- and Google-sponsored grass-roots initiative that aims to be the largest independent repository of open data on the African continent has also picked it up. Increased transparency and accountability will lead to better informed constituencies guiding policymaking. The HERANA initiative provides a model for confronting the worldwide rankings trend in a framework of more meaningful assessment.