Measured improvement

January 1, 1990

Active engagement with the global rankings has spurred KwaZulu-Natal to greater heights, argues M. W. Makgoba

The University of KwaZulu-Natal was formed on 1 January 2004 in extraordinary circumstances. It was born through the merger of the University of Durban-Westville, an Afrikaner institution created in the apartheid era for Indians, which developed a tradition for “struggle and access for the disadvantaged”, and the University of Natal, a white, colonial, Anglo-Saxon and English-speaking liberal arts-style institution.

The merger provided an opportunity for KwaZulu-Natal to invent a new identity, culture, vision, mission and curriculum. As the late Kader Asmal, South Africa’s education minister at the time, put it: “The creation of a new institutional landscape through mergers and incorporations was the last piece in the educational jigsaw, which consigned to history Verwoerd’s ‘grand’ vision of an educational system in which Africans would be prepared for their role as the ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’, and as the administrative cogs for ensuring the smooth functioning of the Bantustans.”

Post-merger, it was essential to identify an academic project that scholars and students from two very different institutions could buy into. Once a vision to create “the premier university of African scholarship” had been accepted, we had to make it a reality through high-quality research, postgraduate study and staff.

At this point, world university rankings were just emerging. These are not without controversy. Some detest them; others accept them as our reality; and many more are beginning to accept them (albeit grudgingly).

But the global rankings had several attractive features for KwaZulu-Natal: they provided recognition and affirmation of peers by peers – something universally endearing to academics, particularly in developing countries; they spoke to our core missions (research, teaching, community engagement, internationalisation and industrial partnerships); and they provided us with transparent criteria, benchmarks and quantifiable indicators.

The rankings were also in keeping with globalisation and the transformation of knowledge production. They were – and still are – designed to improve research, teaching and learning for individual researchers and students; they confer enormous academic prestige that one cannot buy; they allow for healthy comparisons and competition within and across nations, and between a variety of institutions; and they allow university leaders to focus and to account for their strategic plans much more effectively than before. They have also forced all participating institutions to ensure the quality and integrity of their submitted data.

The rankings have allowed universities to create comprehensive institutional profiles to help identify their strengths and weaknesses. These profiles have been very useful in measuring, validating and quantifying performance and strategy across a number of indicators. At KwaZulu-Natal, our profiles have allowed the academic community to see the total picture of the institution’s performance and are reported annually to the university senate and council.

Early on, KwaZulu-Natal faced the major challenge of uniting two traditionally strong institutions with different missions, cultures and identities; adopting the global rankings offered a modus operandi that academics and students alike could utilise. The rankings have provided a mechanism through which the university could inspire and unite its community to deliver its strategy, vision and mission.

In a sense, KwaZulu-Natal’s transformation offers a microcosm of the huge changes within South African society as a whole, where knowledge production and transmission have not only rapidly changed as a result of modern technology and globalisation, but have also been contested through multiple identities, cultures and worldviews.

Since the merger, the university has participated in a number of global rankings emphasising different aspects of the academic mission. This was important for us, because doing so has allowed us to learn from the various strengths of each system to build our profile.

The university’s 2004 strategic plan drove and guided our initial participation in the rankings. Since then, the transformation of the institution has been profound: when we embarked on the project, 35 per cent of KwaZulu-Natal’s academic staff held PhDs; today the figure is 50.3 per cent. In 2004, 45 per cent of our scholars were research-active; today the figure is 89 per cent. The university graduated 100 PhDs in 2004 compared with 177 in 2012; it had 60 postdoctoral researchers in 2005 compared with 276 in 2013. Our industry income was R7.2 million (£436,000) in 2005; in 2011 it was R24.2 million. Overseas academics made up 9 per cent of the faculty in 2004 and 36 per cent in 2012. Citations to KwaZulu-Natal-affiliated publications increased from 17,575 in 2004 to 23,664 in 2012.

As these indicators have progressively improved, so has KwaZulu-Natal’s position in the world rankings, changes that have inspired and united our university community. This success could not have been achieved without active engagement with the global rankings.

M. W. Makgoba is vice-chancellor and principal at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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