Public universities shine in THE’s first Africa rankings

Inaugural league table reveals strong performance by institutions beyond wealthy South Africa, with public universities outperforming private ones in four pillars

June 26, 2023
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View the THE Sub-Saharan Africa University Rankings 2023 results

South African institutions are among the strongest universities in the sub-Saharan region – but they face fierce competition from counterparts in neighbouring countries, Times Higher Education’s inaugural African ranking shows.

The Sub-Saharan Africa University Rankings (SSA), which launched this year with the goal of addressing local higher education challenges, are specifically designed for this area, home to more than 1 billion people. They reveal a strong performance by universities across the region and an unexpected outcome for public institutions, with government-funded universities scoring higher on average than private ones.

To account for the diverse strengths of the sector, the league table follows a hybrid methodology that covers five key pillars: resources and finances; access and fairness; teaching skills; student engagement; and Africa impact.

Sub-Saharan Africa University Rankings 2023: results announced

Mahomed Moolla, head of the strategic partnerships office at the top-ranked University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), based in South Africa, says an assessment designed for the region helps to give due recognition to institutions that make valuable contributions in their local context but struggle to compete on a global scale.

“It does not make sense to rank universities in sub-Saharan Africa with universities in the rest of the world. Very few…make it into the more popular World University Rankings – our challenges and goals are different,” he says.

Wits claims top spot in the overall table of 88 universities across 20 countries; just behind it is its near neighbour the University of Johannesburg. Two other universities from the “rainbow nation” join them in the top 10, as do two institutions from Tanzania and one each from Uganda, Nigeria, Rwanda and Ghana.

The diversity of countries represented in the top 10 list surprised some scholars. Hazel Mugo, research and evaluation manager at the Education Sub Saharan Africa charity, says she would have expected universities from South Africa, one of the continent’s leading economies, to have performed better, given their advantages. She believes the rankings results illustrate the country’s extremely unbalanced distribution of wealth.

Unlike several other THE rankings, which focus on research outcomes, the SSA league table gives insight into varied developmental goals.

While South African universities have some of the highest tuition fees in the region and are “research powerhouses”, this does not mean they necessarily excel in other areas as well, notes Jamil Salmi, a global tertiary education coordinator and emeritus professor of higher education policy at Chile’s Diego Portales University.

Salmi tells THE that other sub-Saharan nations have introduced innovative teaching methods, which could explain their stronger results in the student engagement and teaching skills pillars.

Of the 121 institutions that contributed data for this league table, Nigerian universities make up the largest proportion (42 per cent), followed by those in South Africa (12 per cent) and Ghana (7 per cent).

About two-thirds of participating universities are public institutions; a quarter are private, not-for-profit organisations; and about a tenth are private, for-profit organisations – with similar proportions across Nigeria, which heavily influences the results, and the rest of the region.

Perhaps surprisingly, public institutions dominate the list of top-ranked universities, claiming seven spots in the top 10 despite charging much lower fees than their private counterparts.

The median charge for studying at private, not-for-profit universities in the region is £1,922, which rises to £3,291 at private, for-profit alternatives. But public universities charge a median of £966 per year. Still, public universities receive a higher average overall score in the rankings (50 per cent) than private institutions (43 per cent) – and score higher, on average, across four of the five pillars: resources and finances; access and fairness; student engagement; and Africa impact.

The picture, though, is far from black and white. Within these pillars, private establishments perform better on many metrics – including on facilities, faculty-to-student ratio, and openness to first-generation students.

Yet quality private institutions remain a minority in sub-Saharan Africa because they have fewer resources, a result of their relying almost entirely on tuition fees for their income, says Salmi. This constraint can make it more difficult to develop strong research capabilities, he believes.

This explanation aligns with THE’s results, which show that public universities outscore their more expensive alternatives in both the resources and finances pillar (by 51 per cent to 46 per cent), and on Africa impact (by 45 per cent to 31 per cent). Public institutions also perform better in terms of access and fairness.

Cyprian Misinde, director of quality assurance at Uganda’s Makerere University – a public provider that comes fifth overall in the rankings – says the two types of institutions have different merits, but public universities tend to be more inclusive in providing education to people of all social classes.

“Many private institutions emerged to fill the gaps…they sometimes provide high-quality higher education. However, private institutions tend to be very expensive and exclusive,” he says.

Tawana Kupe, outgoing vice-chancellor of South Africa’s University of Pretoria, in fourth place, notes that public institutions such as his have often benefited from state funds to address the need to widen access. As a result, they have been able to provide broader offerings, including programmes in science, engineering, medicine and technology. Providing equal access to education can, in turn, promote greater equity and social mobility, he adds.

Out of all the pillars, universities – both public and private – performed best on student engagement, with public establishments scoring a median of 59 per cent and private universities getting 54 per cent.

One area where private institutions outperformed their public counterparts was in teaching skills, where they scored 53 per cent, versus public universities’ 49 per cent.

According to Mugo, that result probably reflects the fact that academics at private universities are paid more and offered more development opportunities than their peers in public institutions.

She says scores on teaching skills might be affected by the higher student-to-teacher ratios in public institutions, where student numbers are, on average, seven times larger than at private universities.

In future, the region will probably have a higher proportion of private universities because these institutions are currently “mushrooming” in most countries there, notes Moolla.

“Unfortunately, most of these are for-profit institutions, with the result that they mostly cater to the middle and upper class of society,” he says. “This does not help to alleviate the problem of access to higher education in the region.”

What students say

This ranking is underpinned by information provided directly by universities, bibliometrics data supplied by THE’s partner Elsevier, and a student survey.

The first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa, the student survey collects opinions from more than 20,000 students at 88 institutions. It shows that private universities outscore public ones across every category put to students – facilities, interaction, employability, course quality, and teaching engagement.

Students’ opinions about universities’ offerings, including campus safety, the professionalism of lecturers and academic excellence, help to identify areas for improvement and make impactful changes, according to Mahomed Moolla, head of the strategic partnerships office at the University of the Witwatersrand.

“It also helps us to assess the effectiveness of our educational programmes, curricula, teaching methods and support services and to make informed decisions around policies, activities, programmes and resource allocation,” he said.

He commended THE’s Sub-Saharan Africa University Ranking for taking students’ opinions into account, noting that most university rankings do not.

Collecting feedback from students helps to move from a teacher-centred approach towards a student-centred one and will help to improve the quality of education, said Hazel Mugo, research and evaluation manager at the Education Sub Saharan Africa charity.

“Getting learner feedback will not only improve learning outcomes, but also foster a culture of evidence-based decision-making in higher education institutions.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Congratulations to the top African universities. To be fair they do have excellent researchers and teachers in them. I have worked with a number of African academics and am impressed with their work. Will be expanding my collaborative networks.