UCT's School of Economics has emerged "head and shoulders" above other South African economics departments in a new survey by Professor John Luiz, academic director of the Wits Business School. The four top-rated departments were UCT, Wits, Stellenbosch and Pretoria, according to results published in the latest issue of the South African Journal of Economics.
According to Luiz, UCT features strongly in terms of highly-qualified staff and high-quality research, the relatively good student/teacher ratios, and also showed a reasonably high degree of transformation in its staffing profile.
One section of the study asked departmental heads to rank other departments as they perceived them at the end of 2002. In both research and teaching, UCT was ranked top. "This should be recognised as a reflection of perceptions and not necessarily an indicator of quality," Luiz noted.
The study showed a substantial degree of variation in South African economics departments in terms of research, faculty and course offerings. It also presents extensive comparative information. Among the full-time faculty, UCT's School of Economics had the highest number of full professors, followed by Unisa. There were 140 postgraduate economics students at UCT compared with Unisa's 200 and Pretoria's 109 students. The postgraduate proportion of total economics enrolments was highest at Rhodes and UCT, although with their high undergraduate numbers the proportion of economics postgraduates is low at all universities.
Coupled with transformation imperatives, the survey said most departments struggled to attract and retain good staff. Luiz notes that while academic staff are sourced mainly from South Africa, academics from the rest of the continent are an increasingly significant component. Fifteen per cent of the UCT school's staff complement is from other African countries.
But Luiz was particularly critical of what he felt was a poor research ethos among economics departments. Citing the "publish or perish" dictum, he pointed to the declining research output per lecturer in the South African university system over the last several years.
In absolute terms, UCT's School of Economics published the most articles over this period, an average of 15 a year, with Wits and Pretoria on 14. Journal articles per lecturer was highest at the University of Potchefstroom, but if a higher weighting was given for international journals, UCT again ranked top. Nonetheless, Luiz expressed concern that very few South African academics in the field publish in any of the top 20 mainstream international economics journals.
"A problem that arises in many South African economics departments is that the research burden is borne by a few individuals and that a research culture is not firmly entrenched in departments," he said in the survey.
Director of UCT's School of Economics, Associate Professor Anthony Black, conceded that more needed to be done to improve research output but cautions that Luiz's data do not fully recognise the full spectrum of work by local researchers. He cited the school's contribution in the economic policy field and its research leadership in areas such as poverty, inequality and labour markets. Professor Murray Leibbrandt and Dr Haroon Bhorat recently won UCT's Alan Pifer Award for their contribution to applied academic research and policy intervention in these crucial areas.
Speaking to This Day (May 13, 2004), Black said that one of the trade-offs academics faced was that they could take a few years getting a couple of papers into top international journals, or alternatively, they could make a real intervention in the policy arena. The latter area is regarded as one of the School of Economics' strengths.
"We produce a lot of policy papers and working papers that aren't published and we need to change that," Black said.
Luiz also suggested that economics departments in South Africa should be rigorously tested and ranked, in much the same way as business schools are. In the United States, such ratings have become standard practice among economics departments.
To back this up, Luiz notes that the demand for economics education has risen steeply. Enrolment in economics courses has increased by 80% at UCT over the past decade.
But he also warns that mathematical and statistical competencies had become increasingly important in latter years. "South African departments have been generally quite slow in adapting to these changes but they are now feeling the pressures," he added.
On this score, UCT performed well. Ninety per cent of third-year students take econometrics and the subject is also required for further study.
Mergers of tertiary institutions, Luiz said, would further affect economics tuition. "We have certainly questioned the wisdom of these mergers in a recent paper, and suggested the alternative of a tiered tertiary education system, much like that in the United States."
Luiz said that economics departments also faced enormous pressure to transform. "On the one hand, we need to deal with the realisation that the economics discipline has changed dramatically over the past few decades, and on the other hand, we need to address the issues of transformation, empowerment and redress. It is not clear how these forces will play out."
Commenting on the survey, Black said he felt there was "only an element of science" in Luiz' rankings. Nonetheless, he was delighted UCT had come out on top.
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