Responding to societal challenges and promoting sustainable development are a particularly pressing concern for African universities, which are surging in global rankings.
World university rankings are published towards the end of each year. Establishments around the world are racing to find out how they are doing. Have they progressed or regressed? If so, how many places and in which rankings? Have they maintained their position in a global context of increasingly higher education competitive ?
The performance of African universities has improved. But they still do not feature well in the rankings. In the World University Rankings 2024, THE (The Times Higher Education, for example), the South African University of Cape Town comes first for the continent, in 167th place. It is followed by three other South African establishments: the University of Stellenbosch and the University of the Witwatersrand, which are between 301 and 350, and the University of Johannesburg, between 401 and 500.
The first non-South African sub-Saharan institution, the Ghanaian University of Cape Coast, is in the 601-800 group. Uganda's Makerere University, ranked 801st to 1th, is the first in East Africa.
The value, methodologies and implications of global university rankings are the subject of much debates. Several institutions, such as Utrecht University in the Netherlands, have even withdrawn their participation in certain rankings. They criticize the emphasis on competition and scores rather than partnerships and open science.
We are particularly interested in a recent addition to the ranking criteria: the assessment of sustainability and positive societal impact.Rankings according to impact, for example, evaluate the performance of universities in relation to United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). THE QS ranking in terms of sustainable development includes dimensions related to the environment and social impact.
As academics working in social innovation and sustainability, we welcome the focus on impact and sustainability. Sustainable development is a key concern for universities around the world. It is the driving force behind research and innovation in establishments. It is important for students. It is at the heart of teaching and learning. It also underpins the wider role and activities of universities within communities, societies and economies.
Meeting the challenge of sustainable development is a particularly pressing concern for African universities.
A mandate and a mission
African universities work in contexts where needs are high. Many African economies have experienced rapid growth recentlyMore sustainable development challenges remain. These include poverty and inequalities in gender, health, education and opportunity. Conflict over resources and the effects of climate change are also major challenges.
Some African universities have been established with the aim of addressing these challenges and promoting development and prosperity.
It is therefore very encouraging to see that several African universities are well placed in some of these new impact rankings. Some of them are even world leaders in achieving various sustainable development goals.
For example, South Africa's University of Johannesburg ranks 46th in The Impact Rankings 2023. It is first in the world for its work on SDG 1 (elimination of poverty). It achieved this through initiatives such as Missing Middle Fund, which benefits more than 60% of the university's students. It also invests heavily in research centers, institutes and chairs that focus on poverty issues. It helps them conduct research that has a direct impact on local communities and policy-making.
The Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) of Ghana, on the other hand, gets the highest rating for its contribution toSDG 4 (Quality education). Students at the institution benefit from excellent teaching, complemented by investments in modern infrastructure, ICT and e-learning resources. It offers numerous scholarships and runs programs such as “Support a student in need with a laptop”.
Another positive trend for African universities in the impact rankings is that they are increasingly working together and with partners globally. For example, Makerere University and the Bertha Center for Social Innovation at the University of Cape Town are partners in the Social Innovation in Health Initiative. This initiative aims to promote social innovation in health (SDG 3 – Good health and well-being) on the continent and in other low- and middle-income countries.
These positive stories and more and more examples of African leadership deserve to be celebrated. And it is possible to go even further.
More research is needed to understand how African universities are working towards sustainable development and what more they can do. This could reveal ways to improve existing work and share best practices.
Universities can help find solutions to the challenges of sustainable development. They generate knowledge and can influence policy development and practice. They can develop innovative solutions themselves. As important employers, buyers and users of resources, they can have positive (and negative) effects through their activities.
Research on the role of universities in their communities, including and beyond teaching and research, has focused on the Global North. Universities in the South (and particularly those in Africa) have often been neglected. This relatively limited attention may reflect broader inequalities in global knowledge production and negative perceptions of the work of African universities.
We want to fill these gaps. This is why we have launched a new international, interinstitutional and interdisciplinary research project. The project "African universities as catalysts for social innovation and sustainable development” is financed by the Worldwide Universities Network. It brings together researchers from the Universities of Cape Town, Sheffield, Ghana, Leeds, Pretoria and York, as well as Makerere University.
The project will take place over the next 12 months. We will use a social innovation perspective to study how African universities contribute to the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. We hope that this project will create a community of academics working on the subject in Africa and outside, and that it will provide academic and practical insights.
Annika Surmeier, Senior Lecturer, Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town, University of Cape Town; Alex Bignotti, Senior Lecturer in Social Entrepreneurship, University of Pretoria; Bob Doherty, Professor of Marketing and Chair of Agrifood, University of York; David Littlewood, Senior Lecturer in Strategic Management, University of Sheffield; Diane Holt, Chair in Entrepreneurship , University of Leeds; Phyllis Awor, Lecturer in Public Health, Makerere University; Ralph Hamann,Professor, University of Cape Town et Teddy Ossei Kwakye, Senior Lecturer in Accounting, University of Ghana