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Ahmed Bawa: South African universities might ‘bounce back’

Image: USAF

Governance body head says rankings setbacks don’t have to be permanent

The head of South Africa’s university governing body has said that the country’s universities could recover from recent setbacks in international rankings.

His words come a week after the Times Higher Education emerging country university rankings for 2022 were released, showing no South African universities in the Top 10 for the first time since 2014.

The country’s rankings slide is not simply down to flagging performance, Ahmed Bawa, the chief executive officer of Universities South Africa, told Research Professional News.

“As more and more universities around the world engage in the rankings systems the more pressure is brought to bear on our universities,” he says. “This does not mean that our universities won’t bounce back.”

Steady slide

Last week’s slide in the emerging rankings continues a trend that has seen South African universities dropping down the major international rankings in recent years.

While that might look alarming, Bawa says the rankings do not factor in the “particular strengths” of South African universities. The fact that South Africa’s higher education sector predominantly caters for undergraduates “counts against” it, he says.

Yet, he adds, undergraduate teaching is an essential part of South African universities’ mission. “This is what we need in South Africa.”

It’s not the first time Bawa has raised the idea of an inherent bias against African universities in the rankings.

Last month he said that rankings were “here to stay”, and that African institutions should not ignore them but rather aim to influence the rankings to better cater to African contexts.

Deep challenges

In his latest comments to this publication, Bawa says that South African universities face deep structural and systemic challenges.

“Amongst these are sustainable lines of funding and, in particular, funding for research and postgraduate education,” he says.

South Africa’s universities and research budgets have been put under pressure by cuts due to the coronavirus pandemic and bailouts for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme.

Bawa says that the current student funding system is not sustainable and is adding to universities’ troubles. However, he adds, the problems expand further back, to basic schooling failings.

“The continuing failure of the basic education system to provide much better learning opportunities for our children results in another serious pressure that is placed on our universities,” he says.