John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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South Africa Universities Rank in Top Seven Hundred

by John Campbell
September 19, 2012

Students shout slogans during a protest at the University of Johannesburg 04/03/2010 (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).


In all sub-Saharan Africa, only South Africa contributes universities to the top seven hundred worldwide.   In a recent report published by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), a leading consulting firm on higher education and careers information, the University of Cape Town (UCT) ranks 154 out of seven hundred universities. The University of the Witswaterand (Wits) ranks 364. Also within the top seven hundred–but low down–are the universities of Stellenbosh, Pretoria, and KwaZulu-Natal.  Number one is MIT, followed by the University of Cambridge.  Yale is number seven and Caltech number ten.  The University of Virginia is 123.  Just before UCT at 153 is L’Ecole Normale Superieure de Lyon and just after it at 155, the University of California at Irvine.

University rankings are indicative, not definitive.  But the QS World University Rankings are usually regarded as one of the more influential and widely observed of the university ranking scales.  Its criteria is conventional:  according to its website, a score is determined 40 percent by academic reputation; 10 percent by employee reputation; 20 percent by faculty/student ratio; 20 percent by research and other citations; 5 percent by international faculty numbers; and 5 percent by international student numbers.  Nhlanhia Cele, director of strategic planning at the University of the Witwatersrand, is quoted by the South Africa Press Association as saying, “Rankings matter because they undeniably create a perception about a university.  For example, when top students, academics and researchers are looking worldwide as to where they would most like to study or work, they use the leading ranking systems as a key point of reference.”

All five South African universities were white only during apartheid times, but now have significant numbers of non-white students. University level education is mostly funded by the state and through tuition payments–there is little tradition of large, private endowments to educational institutions.  Nevertheless the absence from the QS list of South African universities that enroll large numbers of non-white students–University of Johannesburg, University of the Western Cape, and Ft. Hare University, etc.–highlights the persistence of apartheid patterns. Other historically white universities also failed to make the cut.

University level education remains predominately a white prerogative.  Nearly 20 percent of all students enrolled in universities are white, while whites make up only 9 percent of the national population.  South Africans recognize that if their country is to compete successfully in the information-technology age, not only are more university graduates necessary, but the quality of the institutions that graduate them needs to be higher, with UCT and Wits being the exceptions.

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  • Posted by kanshu

    It is great to see UCT moving up the ranks albeit slowly. As a masters graduate of UVa, I always look to see how my current institution of employment (UCT) compares with my alma mater.

    It would be great if African universities can increase their funding from industry, which would then push the research towards locally and economically relevant research.

    It would also be good to see more collaboration between US and South African universities. Firstly, this has benefits for both sides of research collaboration. Secondly, it would increase one-on-one contact between Americans and South African and that would have real benefits.

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