SA home to Africa’s top two universities

12 September 2013

South Africa is home to Africa’s two top-ranked universities, including the only African university to be ranked in the top 200 in the world, according to the latest Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings.

Quacquarelli Symonds, a British education research company, released its university rankings for 2013/14 on Monday.

According to the rankings, the University of Cape Town is Africa’s top university, moving up nine places to 145 from 154 last year. The country’s second-highest ranked institution, Wits University in Johannesburg, improved by a huge 50 positions to 313.

The next-highest ranked African university is the American University of Cairo at 348, up by 44 places from 392 last year.

The University of Cape Town (UCT) currently has 416 National Research Foundation (NRF)-rated researchers, including 33 A-rated scientists. Wits University has 16 A-rated scientists and around about 250 NRF-rated scientists.

Some of South Africa’s other universities were also ranked: the University of Stellenbosch in the Western Cape at 387, the University of Pretoria in Gauteng in the 471-480 range, and the University of KwaZulu-Natal in the 501-550 range.

Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape was rated between 551-600, while the University of Johannesburg was ranked for the first time, falling in the 601-650 range.

11th in world for attracting students

South Africa currently ranks 11th in the world for attracting international students. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), the country hosted around 61 000 international students in 2009, two-thirds of whom came from countries in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC).

“South Africa in particular is an attractive option for international students, due to its well developed infrastructure and partnerships with world-class universities around the world,” Quacquarelli Symonds says on its website.

UCT spokesperson Patricia Lucas said that South Africa benefited from having universities ranked on international measures such as the QS.

“A good performance in the rankings is evidence of the world-class education that South Africans and Africans can get at home,” Lucas said in a statement on Tuesday. “Prospective students and staff the world over use the rankings to decide where to study and work.”

Improving university access

At the same time, Lucas issued a word of caution regarding rankings, saying that UCT “remain[s] mindful that all ranking systems have inherent flaws.

“In the South African context, where we have to allocate resources to bridging the gap between inadequate schooling and the high standards of a leading university, there is a risk that too much focus on the rankings might divert resources away from spending to improve access, because there are no criteria to measure that factor.”

UCT has some 26 000 students, 4 500 of whom come from 104 countries. Over half of their enrolments consist of black students, while just over half comprise women. Competition for entry into UCT is high – every year it receives 26 000 applications for just 4 000 first-year placings.

The university is home to more than a quarter of South Africa’s A-rated researchers – academics who are considered world leaders in their fields, as ranked by the National Research Foundation of South Africa.

It also has 32 of the 152 national chairs awarded under the SA Research Chairs Initiative, established by the Department of Science and Technology and managed by the National Research Foundation, to build scientific research and innovation capacity in South Africa.

Attracting the best academic talent

Wits University vice-chancellor Adam Habib said on Wednesday that the university was “pleased to have moved up the rankings by 50 places, reflecting advances on several fronts at the university.

“Our focus going forward is to continue to improve our research publications, throughput rates and postgraduate enrolments,” Habib told SAinfo via e-mail. “We are also looking to attract the best talented academics from South Africa and abroad, as well as postdoctoral students to help us lift our research both quantitatively and qualitatively.

“We believe that if we continue to focus on all these key aspects, we will continue to rise in the rankings. Nevertheless, we continue to be committed to distinctively South African and African priorities in ways that are not necessarily reflected in the rankings.”

QS has been ranking universities for the past nine years, and this year assessed more than 3 000 universities, ranking 800 of them.

The assessment criteria are extensive. Universities are awarded with a rating of one to five+ stars, depending on their performance within an evaluation. Over 30 criteria are used for the assessment, grouped into eight categories: research, employability, teaching, infrastructure, internationalisation, innovation, engagement, and the institution’s standing in specialist subjects.

The Times Higher Education World Rankings are expected later this year. UCT was placed at 113 on these rankings last year, while Wits University was ranked in the 226-250 range.