Universities

Five SA universities ranked in top 100 emerging economies list

David Macfarlane

Five South African universities have made it into the top 100 of new global rankings that assessed more than 700 institutions in emerging economies.

Five South African universities have made it into the top 100 of new global rankings that assessed more than 700 institutions in emerging economies. (Reuters)

Five South African universities have made it into the top 100 of new global rankings that assessed more than 700 higher education institutions in 22 countries.

Although welcoming their own success, some of the local universities also expressed the need for critically assessing the relations between South Africa's specific national priorities and the broader criteria used in various global rankings.

Times Higher Education (THE) published on Wednesday what it described as "the world's first ranking of universities in Brics and emerging economies".

This entailed the magazine assessing more than 700 universities in the five Brics countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – and 17 other countries that the FTSE Global Equity Index classifies as emerging economies.

The five South African institutions in the top 100 are the universities of Cape Town (at number three), the Witwatersrand (15), Stellenbosch (21), KwaZulu-Natal (45) and Pretoria (78).

Claiming the top two spots are universities in China – Peking and Tsinghua. Chinese universities account for a total of 23 places in the top 100, giving the country an "utter dominance" among the Brics and the rankings as a whole, said Phil Baty, editor of the THE rankings, in a statement.

Among THE's other findings are:

  • Taiwan has the second-highest representation (after China) in the top 100, with 21 of its universities making it on to the table;
  • Universities in Colombia, Poland, Thailand and the Czech Republic feature in the top 50;
  • Chile, Mexico, Egypt, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and Hungary all have universities in the top 100;
  • Universities in India take nine of the top 50 places;
  • Russia has only two universities in the top 100, "partly explained by the fact that some of Russia's strongest institutions are too specialist to be included", THE said;
  • Brazil has four universities in the top 100, with its "flagship institution", the University of Sao Paulo, at number 11; and
  • No universities in Indonesia, the Philippines, Peru or Pakistan make the top 100.

Wits University "welcomes" the rankings "but will not let it detract from the university's mandate to build a nationally responsive and globally competitive institution", vice-chancellor Adam Habib told the Mail & Guardian.

"Wits aims through our teaching and research endeavours to serve the country, the continent and the world. This all speaks to our mandate and standing in the various ranking systems, but the rankings are not what should define or drive us."

Influence
Asked about the influence of global rankings on student choices of institution, Habib said: "It is highly unlikely that these rankings will impact on the choices made by undergraduate students, but they may impact on attracting top staff from around the world to our country."

For UCT, there is "delight to be ranked so highly" and "it is pleasing to have five of the nation's universities listed in the top 100 of the new rankings", said Gerda Kruger, the university's executive director of communication and marketing.

At the same time, "none of the [various global] rankings give a perfect view of a university, although a common factor in all the rankings is the quality of research in an institution", she said.

"For a number of years, UCT has noted the inherent flaws within global ranking systems, and therefore it is pleasing to see new ranking systems developed that start to take into account the various contexts within which different countries operate."

Baty's statement refers to concerns frequently expressed about the relevance of global criteria to pressing local developmental needs. "It is often argued that South Africa has too many pressing national concerns to worry too much about whether its universities are able to compete globally," he said.

"Its academy clearly faces many challenges commanding attention on the ground, such as poverty, inequality and an inadequate infrastructure. But despite these local challenges, this ranking clearly demonstrates that South Africa's leading research universities are competing well at the global level."

Academic careers
Kruger said "a good performance in international rankings does assist in sending out the message that a world-class education is available in South Africa. Equally, prospective students and staff the world over use the rankings to decide where they wish to study and advance their academic careers."

THE used the same methodology for these rankings as it did for the 2013-14 world university rankings it published in October. These employ 13 indicators that THE said collectively "examine all the core missions of the modern global university – research, teaching, knowledge transfer and international activity".

But, especially because these new rankings claim to employ precisely the same methodology as THE's full world rankings, we need to ask similar questions of them as of all such global ratings, Sean Muller, lecturer on economics at UCT, told the M&G.

"In what way do these rankings improve on the previous ones?" he asked. "And what reason is there to believe that this particular way of ranking is useful for measuring what universities in developing countries are doing?"

"I don't think we in South Africa should pay too much attention to such rankings. They're crude and inaccurate measures of what's going on at our universities and, particularly, of what's important in our higher education systems. For instance, does the heavy weighting such rankings give to 'reputation' adequately capture the importance to us of undergraduate teaching quality?"

'Dangerous'
Rankings "do appeal to university managers", said Muller. "Where that can become dangerous is when they change their institutions to align them with criteria that global rankings promote."

On Tuesday – the day before THE published these rankings – its main competitor in producing various global ratings, the QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) University Rankings, announced in a worldwide press release it would publish on December 17 the "world's first ranking of universities" in the Brics countries.

These would "adopt a dedicated methodology specifically designed to place the featured nations on a more equal footing", QS announced. This would "shake up the established order from previous world and regional rankings".

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