World university rankings are released towards the end of each year. Institutions globally scramble to see how they have fared. Have they risen or fallen? If so, by how much and in which rankings? Have they maintained their position in an increasingly competitive global higher education landscape?
There have been some improvements in African universities’ performances. But the continent’s institutions still don’t feature prominently towards the top of the rankings. In the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2024, for instance, South Africa’s University of Cape Town is top for the continent, at 167th place. It is followed by three other South African institutions: Stellenbosch University and the University of the Witwatersrand, which sit between 301 and 350, and the University of Johannesburg between 401 and 500.
The first sub-Saharan non-South African institution, Ghana’s University of Cape Coast, is in the group 601-800. Uganda’s Makerere University, placed between 801 and 1,000, is the top in east Africa.
The value, methodologies and implications of world university rankings are much debated. Several institutions, such as the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, have even withdrawn their participation from some rankings. They are critical of the focus on competition and scores rather than on partnerships and open science.
We are especially interested in a recent addition to the rankings landscape: scoring for sustainability and positive societal impact. The THE Impact Rankings, for example, assess universities’ performance against the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The QS Sustainability ranking includes environmental and social impact dimensions.
As academics working in the field of social innovation and sustainable development, we welcome this attention to impact and sustainability. Sustainable development is a critical concern for universities globally. It drives institutions’ research and innovation. It matters to students. It is central in teaching and learning. It also underpins universities’ wider role and activities in communities, societies and economies.
Responding to the challenge of sustainable development is an especially pressing concern for African universities.
A mandate and a mission
African universities work in conditions of significant need. Many African economies have grown rapidly in recent times, but sustainable development challenges remain. These include poverty and inequalities in gender, health, education and opportunities. Conflict over resources and the effects of climate change are also major challenges.
Some African universities were established with the task of addressing these challenges, and to drive development and prosperity.
So it is very welcome that several African universities place well in some of these new impact rankings. Some are even world leaders in addressing various SDGs.
For example, South Africa’s University of Johannesburg ranks 46th in the THE Impact Rankings 2023. It is first globally for its work to address SDG 1 (No Poverty). It has achieved this through initiatives like its Missing Middle Fund, which benefits over 60% of the university’s students. It also invests heavily in research centres, institutes and chairs that focus on poverty issues. It supports them to do research that has a direct impact on local communities and policy development.
Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), meanwhile, scores top for its contribution to SDG 4 (Quality Education). The institution’s students benefit from excellent teaching, complemented by investments in up-to-date infrastructure, ICT and e-learning resources. It provides numerous scholarships and runs programmes like Support One Needy Student with One Laptop.
Another positive trend for African universities in impact rankings is that they are increasingly working together and with partners globally. For instance, Makerere University and the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation at the University of Cape Town are partners within the Social Innovation in Health Initiative. This aims to advance social innovation in health (SDG3 – Good Health and Wellbeing) across the continent and other low- and middle-income countries.
These positive stories and growing examples of African leadership are worth celebrating. And even more may be possible.
Filling the gaps
Further research is needed to understand how African universities are working towards sustainable development and what more they can do. This might reveal ways to enhance existing work and share best practice.
Universities can make it possible to find solutions to sustainable development challenges. They generate knowledge and can influence policy making and practice. They can develop innovative solutions themselves. As major employers, procurers, and resource users they can have positive (and negative) effects through their operations.
Research on the roles of universities in their communities, including and beyond teaching and research, has focused on the global north. Universities in the global south (and particularly those in Africa) have often been overlooked. This relatively limited attention may reflect wider inequalities in global knowledge production, and negative perceptions of the work African universities do.
We want to address these gaps. So we’ve launched a new international, multi-institution and interdisciplinary research project. “African universities as enablers of social innovation and sustainable development” is funded by the Worldwide Universities Network. It brings together academics from the universities of Cape Town, Sheffield, Ghana, Leeds, Pretoria and York, as well as Makerere University.
The project will run for the next 12 months. We will use a social innovation perspective to investigate how African universities are contributing to achieving the UN SDGs. We hope this project will build a community of scholars working on the topic in and outside Africa, and provide academic and practical insights.
Author Bios: Annika Surmeier is a Senior Lecturer, Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town, Alex Bignotti is a Senior Lecturer in Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Pretoria, Bob Doherty is Professor of Marketing and Chair of Agrifood at the University of York, David Littlewood is a Senior Lecturer in Strategic Management at the University of Sheffield, Diane Holt is Chair in Entrepreneurship, Leeds University Business School at the University of Leeds, Phyllis Awor is a Lecturer in Public Health at Makerere University, Ralph Hamann is a Professor at the University of Cape Town, Teddy Ossei Kwakye is a Senior Lecturer in Accounting at the University of Ghana