Relevance of the World-Class University Debate for African Universities

Achieving world-class status will increase their chances of better collaboration with highly ranked universities as well as increase chances to attract resources for research.

September 24, 2017

For most of their history, African universities have been teaching institutions with teaching as their primary or core function, until the early 2000s when there was evidence of a global shift in the role and missions of universities. This is evident in the new mission and vision statements of most top African flagship universities (University of Botswana, University of Cape Town, University of Dar es Salaam, University of Ghana, among other) that have embedded broad World-Class University (WCU) goals in their purpose statements. Recent strategic plans and research policies of selected African universities are focused on making them either WCU or providers of world-class (WC) services.

Challenges for African Universities to Become World-Class

Some have argued that it will be very expensive and challenging for Africa to establish WCUs -- smaller countries in Africa could likely have only one WCU, whereas larger nations such as Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa can support more. African countries must have at least one WCU provided that the universities and their respective governments are committed to this endeavor. 

Research at African universities suffers from a deficit of effective organization and management. Until recently not only was there no appropriate policy framework or strategic planning to outline a vision for research or mission for most African universities, but also a lack of culture capable of supporting the administration, coordination and promotion of research. Academic staff of African universities have heavy teaching responsibilities with little time for research; instead their additional time goes to consultancy work to improve their salaries. Furthermore, African governments are reluctant to finance research in public universities and research institutions and lecturers/researchers are often reluctant to use their research allowance for the intended purpose. Camara and Toure (2010) are hopeful that due to recent improvements in the overall governance of some high-profile universities in Africa and the establishment of multidisciplinary and inter-faculty doctoral schools there are more interactions between researchers and students. The authors maintain that these improvements will help African universities rise to the level of a WCU.

The scramble to globalize higher education strongly favors universities from the United States, Europe and other English-speaking industrialized countries. The world university rankings reflect extreme asymmetries and demarcate profound inequality between the academic core and a vast number of peripheral institutions found in the previously colonized world.

African universities have been on the periphery of the global discussion of WCUs. However, institutions such as the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University, both in South Africa, are ranked among the top universities of the world. This means that African universities have not been absolutely delegated to the periphery, but can strive to become WCUs. Given the socioeconomic and developmental challenges facing the African continent, the mandate and mission for any WCU in Africa should be more Africa focused.

Benefits of Creating WCUs in Africa

African universities believe that becoming world class universities will make them relevant in the new global knowledge environment and bring them to the levels of universities in the West and China. This should result in an increased number of publications in journals cited in international indexes. Achieving world class status will also increase their chances of better collaboration with highly ranked universities as well as increase chances to attract and access sources of research and project funds from donors and other universities. These funds will improve African universities research capacity and give them the necessary support to get better equipment for their science laboratories (Altbach & Salmi, 2011).

African universities believe that achieving WCU status would improve the probability of inclusion in the world university rankings that currently have only 3 to 5 universities from South Africa ranked in the top 500 universities in the world.

In addition, having WCUs in Africa should reduce the brain-drain of its experts from Africa to the developed world. Generally, Professors at research universities tend to be international in their orientation and in their work. They collaborate with colleagues in different countries and are sometimes internationally mobile. Without adequate funding and infrastructure at home there is the risk that the most successful researchers in Africa might accept jobs where working conditions, salaries and facilities are best.

Over the years, the commitment of African universities to tackling the challenges facing the continent has been called to question. Universities in Africa have-not lived up to the earlier missions for which they were created, including finding solutions to the various challenges that plague the continent -- disease; food insecurity and inequality. The creation of world class universities in Africa will bring universities to the global stage, but more importantly improve their research capacity to find lasting solution to many of the continent’s problems.  Research intensive universities in Africa will also help Africa increase its number of publications, currently at less than 2 percent of global publications in most international indexes.

WCUs attract the best faculty and students (that in most cases have Africans among them). Creating a WCU in Africa, will reduce brain drain amongst African scholars and create brain gain to universities in Africa. African universities lack accountability and autonomy, the creation of a WCU in Africa will help to benchmark best practices and encourage universities to be more accountable and earn the needed autonomy to improve their core mandate of research and teaching.


Camara, A. & Toure, K. (2010). “African universities strategize and struggle to research and make research matter.” Research Global Magazine.

Altbach, P. & Salmi, J. (2011). The road to academic excellence: the making of world-class research universities. The World Bank, Washington.

Harris Andoh holds a Ph.D. in science and technology studies from the Centre for Research Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST), Stellenbosch University, South Africa, and is a research policy expert at CREST. His current research looks at the uptake and impact of doctoral research findings on policy in African universities. He specializes in the fields of science and technology evaluation, research evaluation, world university rankings and world class universities, bibliometric and research impact assessment.


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