Brightest in the land

2017-08-20 06:02
The University of the Witwatersrand, which is now the country’s top university according to the Arwu rankings

The University of the Witwatersrand, which is now the country’s top university according to the Arwu rankings

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South Africa has a new number-one university, according to data from the world’s top academic ranking measure.

Now in at first place is the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), which is ranked among the top 200 universities in the world, ahead of the University of Cape Town (UCT) which has fallen from the top-200 band to a place in the top 300, according to data released this week by the Academic Ranking of World Universities (Arwu).

Described by Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande on Friday as one of the top international ranking bodies, Arwu has placed eight South African universities among the top 800 in the world.

The prestigious top-500 list now includes the University of Johannesburg (UJ), which exists in the rankings in the 400-500 band, alongside Stellenbosch University (SU) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).

Further down lie the University of Pretoria (UP), North-West University (NWU) and Unisa.

However, officials from various South African universities said this week that different ranking bodies used various criteria to determine how good institutions were.

Defending UCT’s fall in Arwu’s rankings, communications and marketing executive director Gerda Kruger said it was important to note that, while UCT continued to perform well in international rankings, it was important to take into account the university’s context.

“None of the rankings gives a perfect view of a university.

"In particular, they do not take into account some of the crucial roles universities play in developing countries.

"They do not, for instance, measure the extent of a university’s social engagement – its responsiveness to the communities around us and in the rest of southern Africa – or the degree to which a university develops capacity in Africa, growing the next generation of researchers.

"Both of these are crucial to UCT’s mission,” she said.

Kruger said UCT invested in producing the best possible quality research, teaching and learning for students, and in growing the next generation of researchers and teachers.

According to Arwu, it ranked 4 000 universities according to 52 subjects across the natural sciences, engineering, life sciences, medical sciences and social sciences.

Ranking indicators included research productivity, research quality, the extent of international collaboration and the highest academic recognitions.

Kruger said: “The sudden drop in [UCT’s] overall score can be attributed to the sixth indicator – the number of highly cited researchers on a list that only includes the top 1% of cited publications per year and per research area on the Web of Science.

“Last year, UCT had one researcher in this category; this year, it had none.

"The loss of one researcher in a category weighted 20% of the total score therefore had a dramatic effect on the overall ranking,” Kruger said.

Wits’ deputy vice-chancellor for research, Zeblon Vilakazi, said the university’s research output had increased substantially in the last few years.

Vilakazi said Wits was, however, mindful of the fact that different ranking systems used different methodologies and that their results must therefore be approached with a level of measured circumspection.

“For this reason and others, we believe that, as a university we should not be driven by ranking systems. Rather, our focus should be on building a nationally responsive and globally competitive institution,” he said.

“This means concentrating on research and teaching, and embedding the institution in the work that is necessary to South Africa, the continent of Africa, and the rest of the globe.”

SU’s vice-rector for research, innovation and postgraduate studies, Eugene Cloete, said:

“SU’s view on rankings has always been not to place too much emphasis on them, that academic excellence is non-negotiable, that quality always comes first and that no attempt is being made to artificially influence any rankings.”

UKZN’s deputy vice-chancellor for research, Deresh Ramjugernath, said the university had a strong focus on research and this had resulted in it being consistently listed as one of the top research-intensive universities in South Africa and on the continent.

“The world rankings are extremely competitive and even though, as an institution, we have annually improved our research productivity quantitatively, we have not been able to break into the higher tiers of the world rankings, that is, the top 400 on Arwu,” he said.

“The indicators used by Arwu are significantly weighted towards awards (such as Nobel prize winners) and globally highly cited scientists. UKZN is making great efforts to significantly improve the quality of our research outputs and we are sure that, in time, this will translate into improvements in the rankings.”

UKZN had developed a new institutional strategy, Ramjugernath said, which included aims to produce more impactful research and enhance internationalisation.

UJ’s principal and vice-chancellor, Ihron Rensburg, was delighted at his institution’s inclusion, saying:

“This is a tremendous accomplishment and recognition for UJ and it has been accomplished on our own terms of substantial access and success for the poorest in our nation, significant transformation of our academic community, alongside the active pursuit of global teaching and research excellence.”

NWU’s vice-chancellor, Dan Kgwadi, said the university acknowledged the benefit of being included in the rankings.

“This increases the visibility of the university and makes the brand of NWU recognisable the world over.

"Participating in Arwu enables us also to gain some ideas about our position and how to further develop the university in relation to competitor institutions.”

UP’s vice-principal for research and postgraduate education, Stephanie Burton, said the university had “made significant positive progress recently in other university rankings”.

“In the Urap [university ranking by academic performance] rankings released this month, UP was the only top-ranked South African institution to significantly improve its ranking ... from 490 in 2015/16 to 459 in 2016/17, an improvement of 31 places,” she said.

“UP also significantly improved its ranking according to the QS World University Rankings for 2018, released in June.

"UP is now ranked in the top 52% of ranked institutions internationally as it is in the 501-550 rank range, up from the 551-600 ranking last year.”

Unisa’s vice-chancellor, Mandla Makhanya, said students increasingly looked at rankings when choosing a university and, for that reason, Unisa would strive for continued recognition “for the quality of our teaching and learning, research, community engagement and student service”.

He said the distance-education institution was prejudiced by criteria that focused on scientific research and the absence of a medical faculty.

Nonetheless, it had performed well in recent years in terms of published research and the delivery of doctoral graduates, Makhanya said.

Nzimande said the performance by South African universities should be celebrated.

“It is pleasing that, despite our country’s difficult past, as well as the many challenges that continue to affect South Africa’s higher education sector, commendable transformation is also taking place at our institutions of higher learning, with more students from disadvantaged backgrounds now accessing higher education,” he said.

Read more on:    blade nzimande  |  education

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