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SA universities contest drop in world rankings

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South Africa’s universities have vehemently challenged their across-the-board drop in world rankings, saying the criteria followed failed to take into account realities in Third World countries.

The funding shortfall has been cited as a major reason for the decline in rankings – even as students await an announcement on whether there will be a fee hike in 2017, with violent protests erupting in some institutions ahead of the proclamation.

Students torched buildings and vehicles during violent protests at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Westville campus in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

According to this year’s QS World University Rankings survey, local institutions of higher learning dropped across all of the ranking systems’ metrics. These metrics include employer reputation, teaching quality and academic reputation.

“We must caution that although all South African universities dropped in the QS rankings, the University of the Witwatersrand improved significantly in the Center for World University Rankings and the Shanghai rankings – research rankings that are based more on testing than the QS rankings as they are based on actual research data rather than perceptions,” said Wits University spokesperson Shirona Patel.

The University of Cape Town (UCT) contested the criteria for the rankings, saying the QS survey did not take context into consideration, especially with regard to tertiary institutions in Third World countries: “In 2014, QS equalised citations across all five faculty areas to try to better represent institutions that are strong in the arts, humanities and social sciences. This continues to hit institutions such as UCT – which are very strong in life, natural and health sciences – hard.

“Another criterion within the QS rankings that drives this point home is the ratio of staff to students. This accounts for 20% of the total score, and has always been an area of dramatic underperformance, where UCT consistently fails to rank even in the top 400 [we were ranked 479 on this measure this year] … This is unlikely to see an improvement, given the chronic underfunding of higher education teaching by government and the increased pressure on fees,” the university protested.

The universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Johannesburg and Wits have all indicated that they require a fee hike of at least 8% for 2017 to stay afloat. This comes after the fee hike for 2016 was frozen across the board, following a nationwide shutdown of universities by students calling for a fee freeze and free education.

City Press reported last week that universities would insist on a fee hike for 2017 and, despite whatever recommendation Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande would make, the decision would ultimately be up to their councils to make.

In response to questions by City Press pertaining to budget cuts – including frozen posts and delayed projects – that had to be made following last year’s fee freeze, Wits University said it had not, as yet, made any trade-offs.

Kaamini Reddy, spokesperson for the University of Johannesburg (UJ), said: “After the state subvention to the value of R140 million in 2016, UJ had to reduce its operating budget by R60 million, delaying some of the expenditure that would have been incurred in areas such as repairs and maintenance to infrastructure, replacement of computers, etc.”

In submissions made to the Fees Commission conducting hearings on the matter, various institutions pointed to the decrease in state subsidies for universities over the past few years. In its submission, the University of the Western Cape placed this figure at 11% since 2000.

The institutions called on government to increase gross domestic product expenditure on higher education to at least 1%. Current expenditure is at about 0.71%.

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