By Saumu Mwalimu
East African universities are in the spotlight again after they all fared dismally in the latest world universities ranking released last Thursday by the British Times Higher Education. There was no university from the region in the top 400 slots globally. The question many education stakeholders are probably asking is: What exactly do the rankings tell us about our centres of academic excellence?
As usual, the US dominates the global university rankings compiled by Times Higher Education (THE) with data supplied by Thomson Reuters. It has 75 universities in the top 200 and seven in the top 10. Britain comes next with 32 universities in the top 200, three more than last year, and three in the top 10. The Netherlands and Germany are next in the top countries list, with 12 universities each in the top 200.
Phil Baty, editor of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, said: “We have put huge effort into making the rankings comprehensive and balanced, and into ensuring that they are carefully calibrated to look at the broad range of each university’s activities and to recognise the unique characteristics and structures of each university we examine.”
Prof Makenya Maboko, the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM)’s deputy vice chancellor (Academics), says the results are not surprising.
“With the criteria used in the rankings, it would be very odd to see Third World countries’ institutions of higher learning making it to the top of the list,” says Prof Maboko.
“The qualifications that are needed for an institution to be among the top, automatically eliminated our universities. This is due to the fact that we are in a developing economy, and so our countries still face major challenges that are an obstacle to any effort aimed at achieving global quality.”
His sentiments echo comments by East African academicians on the previous THE rankings. While agreeing that the rankings were a wake-up call to governments and university administrations, some academicians dismissed them as unfair. They were of the opinion that the results did not reflect the situation on the ground.
“African universities face enormous challenges,” argued Prof Goolam Mohamedbhai, former secretary general of the Association of African Universities.
“Africa inherited an education system that was a carbon copy of its colonisers. It is now expected to compete on a completely non-level playing field. Not only is this unfair, it is also inappropriate,” he said in remarks published in Daily Nation.
But Jonathan Adams, director of research evaluation for Thomson Reuters, which collected data for the rankings, said this year’s methodology “was the most ambitious to date and captured information that profiled higher education institutions in a more rounded, global context”.
13 performance indicators
The data judged universities on 13 performance indicators that, THE-Thomson Reuters said, examined all core missions of a global university: research, teaching, knowledge transfer and international activity.
“The ability of a university to attract the very best staff from across the world is key to global success,” said lead researcher Ann Mroz.
But all is not gloom for the region. Early this year, a new ranking system that assesses academic performance of higher institutions of learning placed Makerere University, one of East Africa’s academic bright spots, at the top in sub-Saharan Africa.
Makerere, which came eighth in overall ranking on the continent and 736th globally, was beaten to top position by universities from South Africa, which took the first five positions, while Egyptian institutions ranked sixth and seventh.
The rankings were done by Turkey-based Informatics Institute of the Middle East Technical University, University Ranking by Academic Performance (URAP).
A total of 2,500 universities were surveyed globally for the results released in December 2010. The URAP ranking looks at publications, citations, cumulative journal impact, research quality, international collaborations and Google scholar results of an institution.
Quoted in Daily Monitor, the Makerere Vice Chancellor, Prof Venansius Baryamureeba, welcomed the new ranking, saying it was important to keep academic institutions in check over quality and standards.
Good for checks
“All universities need to know where they stand among other universities in the world in order to evaluate their current academic performance and develop strategic plans that can help strengthen and sustain progress,” he said.
And in Kenya, another recent ranking — webometrics — that judges according to the information available on the Internet for each university placed four local universities among the top 100 in the continent.
In addition, the 4icu.org rankings, which evaluate universities and colleges in Africa by popularity, placed the University of Dar es Salaam at the 13th position early this year, while Sokoine University of Agriculture scored number 90. These were the only two universities from Tanzania. There were nine from the whole region in the top 100 list.
But Prof Mohamedbhai argues that African universities do not need to be ranked in the global setting.
“Their mission should be to produce the appropriate manpower required for Africa’s development, to undertake research that is of direct relevance to Africa.”
And Kenya’s Commission of Higher Education (CHE) boss Everret Standa said the fact that local universities did not meet the vetting procedure did not mean that there was no quality learning.