A steep mountain to climb

Wits aims to be ranked within the top 100 universities by 2022 but the university seems to be slipping down the rankings. Only 859 of Wits’ 6340 graduates come from the science faculty. The number of publications from the faculty is increasing but research output measured in publication units is staying about the same. Students are increasing every year but the total number of staff is decreasing.

Science research will play a key role in boosting Wits’ world ranking to within the top 100 by its 100th birthday, but some think it will be a difficult goal to achieve.

Wits has dropped by over 100 positions since 2007 to a rank of 399 according to report compiled for Wits by ranking system “QS”. Another ranking system, Times Higher Education, placed Wits between 251 and 275. In ten years, Wits hopes to be placed in the top 100.

“I think it’s quite an ambitious target … it’s obviously possible because UCT’s going up the rankings, but the reality is that we’re going down the rankings,” said David Dickinson, sociology professor and president of Academic Staff Association of Wits University (Asawu).

According to the Wits 2011/12 Facts & Figures booklet, the total staff in the science faculty dropped from 639 in 2007 to 398 in 2011 and academic staff dropped from 192 to 152. Wits human resources confirmed the drop in overall staff headcount but added that the final figures for 2011 were in fact 438.

Dickinson said if Wits wanted to move higher up in the ranking it must publish and teach more, and produce more postgraduates.

Chemistry professor Helder Marques said he was surprised to hear there was a decrease in staff numbers and that it is a cause for concern. He said staff felt extremely pressurised and had to do a lot more teaching. He also said support staff was not as efficient or well-skilled as they could be.

The Facts & Figures booklet shows that research output has decreased slightly over the last few years. The booklet uses “publication units” (a measure related to how much money is received for each publication) and not the actual number of publications.

Marques, however, said that is not a good measure of research output and called the compilers of that data “damn lazy”. His own analysis showed the actual number of publications had been steadily increasing from 348 in 2007 to 511 last year.

He conceded this measure did not address the quality of the published research. He said a new system of performance management would be introduced into the faculty soon that would set targets for academics which will reflect both the number and quality of publications.

Marques also said that eight schools within the faculty rank within the top 1% of the world when it comes to citations, or how often other people reference their articles.

“We’re pretty good [in terms if impact] for a relatively small university.”

Published in Wits Vuvuzela, 18 May 2012