South Africa has one of the best university systems in the world – but there’s a catch

South Africa’s tertiary education system is one of the best in the world – but only when adjusting for levels of economic development, a new report has found.

The latest Ranking of National Higher Education Systems for 2019, compiled by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic & Social Research at the University of Melbourne, assesses the university systems of 50 economies across the globe.

Countries are assessed across 24 indicators and ranked overall and on each of four modules: Resources (government and private funding), policy Environment, Connectivity (national and international authorship) and research Output.

Within each measure the highest achieving country is given a score of 100 and scores for other countries are expressed as a percentage of this highest score.

The researchers compile two main rankings based on the date – the first being the main ranking, comparing each country to the best of the best; and the second being an adjusted ranking, where performance on each criteria is recalculated to incorporate the relative size of each economy on a GDP per capita basis.

“In our main rankings, the performance of a country is measured against world-best, usually high-income countries. But it is neither possible nor desirable for low-income countries to match the performance of rich countries,” the researchers said.

“Comparisons of performance should also be made with that of countries at similar levels of economic development. More precisely, how well does a country perform on each of our criteria relative to its level of GDP per capita?”

In the main ranking, South Africa is lower down list, 34th – though up from the 2018 rank of 37th.

In terms of resources, it also ranks 34th, while it ranks 23rd for the policy environment in which universities operate, 32nd for national and international research connectivity, and 36th for its research output.

However, when adjusted for economic development, South Africa rockets 30 places up the ranking, to be listed 4th overall.

This means, relative to the size of our economy and levels of development, South Africa has one of the best-positioned tertiary education environments across all countries assessed.

“Compared with the original rankings, seven countries improve their ranking by more than ten places. Serbia shows the largest increase (38 places) followed by South Africa (up 30) and Ukraine (up 22). Five countries improve by between nine and 16 ranks: India, Brazil, Portugal, China and Greece.

“The largest fall in rank compared with the Section 3 results is that of Saudi Arabia. The United States is measured as performing above expected values but nevertheless falls to 17th position. Similarly, Singapore, the country with the highest income levels, now ranks only 23rd,” the researchers said.

“Ireland falls substantially but is disadvantaged by our use of Gross Domestic Product as a measure of income levels. Foreign ownership is relatively large in Ireland and a better measure of domestic income levels for this country would be Gross National Income.”

  • For resources, the highest ranked countries for resources are Serbia (1st) and South Africa (2nd) where expenditures are around 35% more than what is expected given their income levels.
  • In connectivity, the top three countries for international co-authorship are Saudi Arabia, Chile and South Africa (6th), where values are around one-third higher than expected given their income levels.
  • When looking at output, South Africa climbs to 9th after adjusting for differences in income levels. The impact of publications is highest for South Africa, India, Greece, Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium and the United Kingdom.
  • The environment rank lists South Africa at 26th, as it uses very similar guidelines as the main ranking. It’s the only metric where South Africa drops position.

The table below outlines South Africa’s performance in both rankings:

Category Main ranking Adjusted for economic development
Overall 34th 4th
Resources 34th 2nd
Connectivity 32nd 6th
Environment 23rd 26th
Output 36th 9th

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South Africa has one of the best university systems in the world – but there’s a catch