Education and Skills

Africa's universities are surging in the world rankings

African universities are climbing the global rankings.

African universities are climbing the global rankings. Image: Getty Images/iStock

Phil Baty
Chief Global Affairs Officer, Times Higher Education
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  • There are now 97 African universities in THE World University Rankings, up from four in 2012.
  • Increased government funding and heightened public accountability have been key to the improvement.
  • The transformation will stem the continent's brain drain and further its economic development.

Ten years ago, the then head of the University of Cape Town, Max Price, made a powerful case for Africa to compete against the best in the world in the global university rankings.

“There are good reasons why the production of new knowledge should not be the preserve of the rich and powerful countries in the world,” he wrote in Times Higher Education (THE) in 2012. While many in Africa were sceptical about the importance of the US-dominated global university rankings in the developing world, Price argued: “The question of North-South inequality is not just an ideological matter nor an issue of national pride – as perhaps the Olympic medals tables might be. Rather, it is about economic development as developing countries transform into high-tech knowledge economies.

“This is not about being merely consumers of others’ innovation and ideas, but about being explorers and shapers of the future,” he said.

A decade later, Price can feel vindicated. At the time of his article, there were only four African universities in THE World University Rankings: his own university, Cape Town, two others from South Africa, and one university from Egypt. Today, there are 97, up from 71 in 2022 and just 27 five years ago. The transformation has been remarkable.

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In the most recent rankings, five countries entered the rankings for the first time ever, all of them African: Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. There are now 17 African countries in the ranking in total, compared with nine in 2018 and just two in 2012.

African universities are gradually rising to the top

Overall, African universities’ scores across the world rankings’ range of 13 performance indicators, which cover teaching, research, innovation and internationalization, have risen faster than the world average. Nigeria is the fastest-rising nation in the world over the last five years for the impact of its research (measured through research citations).

There are now 97 African universities in the THE World University Rankings, up from four in 2012.
There are now 97 African universities in the THE World University Rankings, up from four in 2012. Image: THE

The African Union’s Agena 2063 masterplan for transforming Africa into a global powerhouse calls for a “revitalization” of “tertiary education, research and innovation to … promote global competitiveness”. A strengthening cadre of top global universities in Africa will help African nations not only stem the brain drain, but also help attract international talent from outside the continent too.

They will attract inward investment and powerful international research collaborations. They will help ensure that Africans are at the forefront of new knowledge creation and technological innovation for thriving, transformed knowledge-driven economies. They will help ensure Africa’s top talent is nurtured, creating the next generation of productive, engaged citizens, supporting peace and strong democracies.

For Peter Okebukola, Chairman of Nigeria’s National Universities Ranking Committee (NURAC) and President of the Global University Network for Innovation (GUNi-Africa), there are several key reasons for the remarkable African surge in the rankings.

Firstly, there has been a significant strategic push within universities to become “world class”, with the aspiration built into strategic goals and institutional missions and driving improved practices. But public pressure has also been applied, he explains, as “poorly ranked universities are ridiculed by the press and social media” and accountability over scarce public funding in Africa “is set at a higher notch”.

African universities are climbing to become a global education powerhouse.
African universities are climbing to become a global education powerhouse. Image: THE

But perhaps most important is the top-down drive from government, with “increased funding through special interventions for research and infrastructural development”, he says, seen particularly in Ghana, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. Alongside this, success breeds success with a “brand effect”, as higher global rankings help attract international students and research grants and support further ranking rises.

In Nigeria, says Okebukola, a 2030 strategic plan for improving global rankings has an investment of around $6 billion and is “expected to quicken the pace of the rise of Nigerian universities to global ranking limelight”.

Another key factor in Africa’s success in the global rankings, says Okebukola, is the increasing culture of collecting and deploying data for performance analysis, with the emergence of national ranking systems and performance metrics “stimulating healthy competition and leading to the emergence of national champions which end up with stellar performance on global rankings.”

To support this emerging new culture of data collection and benchmarking, sub-Saharan Africa is set for its own bespoke new ranking, developed in Africa to meet African needs, and supported by the Mastercard Foundation and THE. The Sub-Saharan Africa University Rankings will include metrics covering resources and infrastructure, access and fairness, teaching and graduate employment, student engagement and Africa impact (including an examination of universities’ contribution to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals).

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At THE, we hope that this new performance framework will help African universities play their vital part in realizing the continent’s huge potential. Simon Marginson, Professor of Higher Education at the University of Oxford, says the continent’s current surge in the global rankings is a welcome development.

“It means that science and technology in Africa is connecting more effectively to the global science system and higher education networks. That helps to build both activity and recognition, which in turn further builds connectedness, in a virtuous circle.”

Or as John Kufuor, former president of Ghana and a past president of the African Union, once put it: “Education, particularly higher education, will take Africa into the mainstream of globalization.”

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