Pretoria off the ranking radar

The University of Pretoria learned with disquiet that it was no longer ranked in the top 500 Universities in the ranking by the Institute of Higher Education of the Shanghai Jaio Tong University although it has been ranked since this ranking was established in 2003.

This ranking is one of the two international rankings that are regarded as significant internationally. The other ranking is The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES). The University of Pretoria remains in the THES extended ranking of the World’s 500 universities.

Although many universities and higher education sectors around the world have reservations about the Shanghai academic ranking, it is still an important reflection of research performance with a bias towards the natural sciences, engineering and technology.
The ranking of universities is a competitive process and as countries increasingly recognise the value of research universities to the growth of their economies, their investment in higher education is rising dramatically with a concomitant rise in the performance of individual institutions.

The intensification of competition between universities worldwide is a classic example of the ‘red-queen effect” from Alice in Wonderland where you have to run faster simply to stay in the same place. In an article entitled ‘Africa: three universities in global top 500, two out,” published in the Africa edition of World University News, Karen McGregor speculates that the University of Pretoria has ‘probably [been] pushed out of the Shanghai Index Top 500 by the rise of universities in China”.

We believe that this analysis of the predicament of the University of Pretoria is accurate, as our performance in the categories assessed by the Shanghai ranking had improved from 2006 to 2007, but we are not ranked in the 2008 ranking. This suggests that the relative performance of other institutions has overtaken us with the result that we have fallen off the rankings. In the period 2002 to 2006 we had nine nature journal and science journal papers, for 2006 we had 851 science citation index (SCI) papers—this performance was used as part of the basis for our inclusion in the 2007 rankings.

In the period 2003 to 2007 we had nine nature and science articles and for 2007 we had 865 SCI papers. Thus, even though our performance improved from 2007 to 2008, it was not sufficient to maintain our rankings.

The Shanghai ranking has two classes of ranking factors, those that are very time sensitive as the reporting periods are short and those factors that change slowly over time (Nobel prize-winners as alumni, and individuals who are highly cited, as identified in ISI Web of Knowledge). The short-period factors contribute to a strong ‘red-queen effect”, while the factors that change over longer time scales buffer institutions to some degree from the ‘red-queen effect”.

In the case of UCT, they have both Nobel prize-winners as alumni and two individuals who are ranked as highly cited. Wits has alumni who are Nobel prize-winners and UKZN has one highly cited individual. Because UP does not yet have individuals in these two categories, it is exposed to the full force of the ‘red-queen effect”.

The UP remains committed to its vision of enhancing its position as one of South Africa’s world-class universities. We will redouble our efforts to improve our research performance as measured by the Shanghai index.

Robin Crewe is vice rector at the UP. Source: //

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