More than half of Africa’s top research universities are in South Africa

The University of Cape Town in South Africa is consistently ranked as Africa’s top university.
The University of Cape Town in South Africa is consistently ranked as Africa’s top university.
Image: Creative Commons/Ian Barbour
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Four out of Africa’s top 5 research universities are in South Africa, according to a ranking by Times Higher Education (THE)—a UK-based weekly focused on higher education.

The list of Africa’s top 14 research universities is solely based on their research influence: how often their faculties’ research papers are cited and referred to by other academics globally.

Data: Times Higher Education 

The University of the Cape Town—ranked 124th in the 2014-2015 world rankings—leads the pack of Africa’s top research universities, with the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Makerere in Uganda coming in at 2nd and 3rd place respectively. South Africa—with 21 national universities and six high-profile research and development institutions supported by government—has developed several incentive schemes, including tax breaks, to encourage private companies to partner with universities to invest in research and development.

Africa has a shortage of quality research universities—with only five African universities making the cut for the global world university rankings. Many have not yet had the time, wealth or reputation to compete with their top global counterparts.

A separate African ranking is needed, Times Higher Education says, since current world rankings overlook many African universities. Research universities play an important role in pioneering innovation through research and development programs. If commercialized through patents and partnership with industry players, research can help nurture economic growth.

A study (pdf, pg. 2) conducted by the Malawian academic Paul Zeleza shows how Africa’s research performance is lagging behind some of its counterparts in the developing world. Released in 2014, the study found that African universities had the lowest share of research publications between 2002 and 2008, compared to Latin American and Asian universities.

Africa’s share of peer-reviewed international researchers also fell during that period—2.2% in 2008 and 2.1% in 2002—while Asian and South American universities grew their share of international peer-reviewed researchers.

For African universities to build improve their research capabilities, building collaborative relationships with industry is important. National governments can encourage this by investing more in higher education with incentive schemes to reward quality research output.