Wits tops Africa

Wits has been ranked the top university in Africa and 114th in the world. Photo: Wits Communications
Wits has been ranked the top university in Africa and 114th in the world. Photo: Wits Communications

By Percy Matshoba and Roxanne Joseph

Wits University has been ranked the top university in Africa and among the best in the world by the Center for World University Rankings (CWUR). 

The CWUR looked at 1000 universities around the world and ranked Wits at 114 overall. University of Cape Town is ranked 267, Stellenbosch 311, the University of KwaZulu-Natal 459 and the University of Pretoria 609. 

The criteria include the quality of education, alumni employment, quality of faculty, publications and research papers, influence, citations, broad impact and patents. Wits scored highly in alumni employment (29th) and quality of education (79th).

“It makes me feel like I am in a world class institution.”

The CWUR previously compiled a list of the top 100 universities in 2013, and has now extended the ranking to 1000 universities in the world.  The group claims to be the only ranking system that includes in its research the quality of education and skills development of students without relying on surveys and university data submissions.

Third-year law student Lerato Maviya said she was not quite convinced by the CWUR ranking system in terms of the quality of education. “I still find flaws in the way we are taught [at Wits],” she said.

BA Law student, Dimpho Bendile said the rankings made her proud to be a Witsie. “It makes me feel like I am in a world class institution.”

Approach ranking systems with caution

Wits Vice Chancellor Prof Adam Habib discounted the rankings and said they should be looked at with caution.  Different ranking systems used different criteria for universities. 

“We believe that as a university we should not be distracted by such ranking systems,” he said.  

Habib said the university’s focus should be to build a “nationally responsive and globally competitive institution, one that is both demographically diverse and cosmopolitan.” He said that if the university focuses on these qualities it will surely build a strong accreditation which will be acknowledged by more “established and relevant ranking systems”.

Proud to be a Witsie

Wits university alumnus Simiso Ndlovu said, in terms of graduate employment, the university had gone out of its way to find employment for graduates. “I got my current job through my honours lecturer,” she said. 

Ndlovu said the university’s top ranking gave her a sense of honour and prestige among competing graduates. “I can go anywhere in the world and proudly proclaim that I am a Witsie,” she said.

Director of Alumni Relations Peter Maher said the CWUR ranking was a confirmation of previous reports that had ranked Wits highly.  He said Wits has produced high achieving graduates when compared to other universities in Africa. 

“The overall ranking is good news for Wits graduates,” Maher said. Harvard was ranked as the best university by the CWUR, scoring the highest in seven of eight categories.

The top 10 universities on the list were shared between the United States, represented by eight universities, and the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

Japanese universities were also heavily represented in the top 20 with the University of Tokyo at 13th and Kyoto University in the 16th spot.  The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology took the 18th spot and other US institutions completed the list.

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