The World Economic Forum (WEF), an organization of the global economic elite, has published a report by Phil Baty, currently Chief Global Affairs Officer of Times Higher Education (THE), that proclaims that African universities are "surging in the world rankings" and that this is a highly positive development. This is an irresponsible claim that has scant relationship to reality.
The report refers to a claim in 2012 by Max Price, then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, that African universities needed to rise to the challenge of global university rankings. According to Baty, African universities are now successfully competing in the rankings game and rising to the top.
And just what is the evidence for this? Well, in 2012 there were four African universities in the THE World University Rankings, In 2022 there were 97. An impressive and remarkable achievement indeed if we are talking about same rankings. But they are not the same.
In 2012 the THE rankings consisted of 402 universities. By 2022 they had expanded to 2,345 including "reporters", of which 1500+ were formally ranked. It would be truly amazing if any region had failed to improve its representation.
The real comparison, of course, is with the numbers in the top 400 in both years and here there is no sign of any African surging. In 2012 there were three South African universities in the top 400. The University of the Witwatersrand and Stellenbosch University were in the 251-275 band and in the 2022-2023 rankings they were in the 251-375. The University of Cape Town was 103rd in 2012 and 160th in 2022-2023, which might be cause for concern if this was a ranking that had a rigorous and stable methodology but that is not the case for THE.
The fourth African university in the top 400 in 2012 was the University of Alexandria in the 301-350 band. By 2022 it had dropped to the 801-1000 band. This was a university on a downward spiral from its magical moment of ranking glory in 2010 when it was ranked 147th in the world overall and 4th in the world for citations as a result of a spurious affiliation claim by a serial self-publisher and self-citer, who was involved in a libel case with Nature.
By 2022-2023 another African university, the University of Cape Coast in Ghana, had entered the top 400. This was not a testimony to any kind of achievement. It was simply the result of the university taking part in the Gates-funded Global Burden of Disease Study (GBDS). Because of a flawed methodology it is possible for a university with a few papers in the study, which typically have hundreds of authors and citations, and a small number of total publications to rack up scores of 80, 90, or even 100 for this indicator.
There is then no evidence of a surge of any kind, not even a bit of a trickle.
That brings us to the assertion that Nigeria has, followed by Egypt, posted the biggest gains in the citations indicator, which purports to measure research impact or research quality or something, and has therefore achieved excellent progress.
THE is being entirely too modest here. It could have used the indicator to celebrate the extraordinary accomplishment of a range of African institutions and countries that have surged in the rankings with 90 + scores for citations, an incredible accomplishment that contrasts with very low scores for Research, which includes publications, expenditure and reputation. In fact, if this indicator is taken seriously a number of African universities have now outpaced reputable research universities in North America and China.
These research influencers, according to THE, include Jimma University, Ethiopia, Damietta University, Egypt, Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences, Tanzania, Aswan University, Egypt, University of Lagos, Nigeria, the University of Zambia, and Kafrelsheikh University, Egypt.
Again, this has nothing to do with excellence or teamwork or transformative practices or any other current managerial shibboleth. It is largely the result of contributing a single researcher or a few to the hundreds of "authors" of GBDS papers in The Lancet and other prestigious journals and collecting credit for thousands of citations.
The cruellest aspect of this is that THE have announced that they are finally getting around to a partial revamping of the world rankings methodology this year. If THE do go ahead it is very likely -- not certainly because the whole process is so complex and opaque -- that these universities will go tumbling down the rankings and we shall probably see leaders across the continent under fire for their gross incompetence.
It is strange that an organisation that supposedly represents the best minds of the corporate world should adopt THE as the sole arbiter of African excellence. It is not the only global ranking and in fact it is probably the worst for Africa. It emphasises income, assessed by three separate indicators, self-submitted data which diverts the unacknowledged labour of talented and motivated faculty, and reputation, and privileges postgraduate programmes.
Perhaps also, at the risk of committing heresy in the first degree, the quality of higher education should not be Africa's highest priority. The latest edition of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) shows that Morocco, Egypt, and South Africa do very poorly with regard to fourth grade literacy. For South Africa and Morocco, the situation revealed by the 2019 Trends in Mathematics and Science (TIMSS) was little better, although they did come out ahead of Pakistan and the Philippines. Surely, this is as crucial for the future of Africa as the funding of doctoral programmes.