Ranking the 13 best universities in South Africa

Thirteen universities from South Africa feature in the 2019-2020 list of the top 2000 universities compiled by the Centre for World University Rankings (CWUR).

They are led by the University of Cape Town, ranked 252nd globally, and followed by the University of the Witwatersrand, which lost its top spot in SA to UCT in 2018.

Stellenbosch University, University of KwaZulu-Natal, and University of Pretoria round up the top five universities in South Africa, with the University of Johannesburg ranked sixth.

Stellenbosch climbed from 5th in 2018 to third in 2019, pushing UKZN to fourth and University of Pretoria to fifth.

According to the CWUR, results have been mixed for local universities in 2019 with four of the top seven institutions, including the  top two, losing ground.

Dr. Nadim Mahassen, president of the  Center for World University Rankings, said: “It is a worrying time for  South African universities amid stiff global competition from well-funded universities.

“Funding for higher education is crucial if the government aspires its universities to compete on the global stage. Without sustained strong investment, South African universities face the possibility of declining in the future.”

2019 Rank 2018 Rank University Score
252 223 University of Cape Town 77.6
254 230 University of Witwatersrand 77.6
381 448 Stellenbosch University 75.6
424 402 University of KwaZulu-Natal 75.0
556 438 University of Pretoria 73.6
761 790 University of Johannesburg 71.9
869 North-West University 71.1
1034 University of the Western Cape 70.1
1183 University of the Free State 69.3
1224 Rhodes University 69.0
1417 Unisa 68.1
1620 Nelson Mandela University 67.2
1926 Tshwane University of Technology 66.1

Global rankings

For the eighth year, Harvard ranks as the top global  university. MIT follows, achieving its highest position since 2012 by overtaking Stanford. Cambridge, the top public university in the world, ranks fourth followed by the University of Oxford.

But the US, despite claiming eight of the top 10 places globally and  slightly improving overall relative to last year, sees the number of its  representatives in the worldwide top 1000 drop by 5% compared to five  years ago, down to 218 institutions.

The UK, while claiming the top four places in Europe and 63 places in the global top 1000, is also down in terms of the total number of its representatives in the top 1000 by 3% during the same time frame.

With increased governmental funding, China sees an increase of 37% in  the number of its institutions among the world’s top 1000 in the last five years, up from 83 to 114. Japan’s University of Tokyo remains Asia’s top institution for the eighth year in a row.

Elsewhere, the University of Melbourne ranks first in Oceania, the University of São Paulo tops Latin America and the Caribbean, and the University of Cape Town ranks highest in Africa.

2019 Rank University Score
1 Harvard University 100.0
2 Massachusetts Institute of Technology 96.7
3 Stanford University 95.2
4 University of Cambridge 94.1
5 University of Oxford 93.3
6 Columbia University 92.6
7 Princeton University 92.0
8 University of California, Berkeley 91.6
9 University of Pennsylvania 91.1
10 University of Chicago 90.7


CWUR’s rankings grade universities on seven factors:

  • Quality of  education (25%) – the number of a university’s alumni who have won major international awards, prizes, and medals relative to the university’s size;
  • Alumni employment (25%) – the number of a university’s alumni who have held CEO positions at the world’s top companies relative to the university’s size;
  • Quality of faculty (10%) – the number of academics who have won major international awards, prizes, and medals;
  • Research output (10%) – the total number of research papers;
  • High-quality publications (10%) – the number of research papers appearing in top-tier journals;
  • Influence (10%) – the number of research papers appearing in highly-influential journals;
  • Citations (10%) – the number of highly-cited research papers.

The rankings are unique in that they measure the teaching and training of students as well as faculty prestige and research performance without relying on surveys and university data  submissions.

According to the CWUR, the methodology for 2019/20 has been slightly enhanced to give equal emphasis to the learning environment and research.

Twenty thousand universities worldwide have been analysed, and the annual ranking – now  in its eighth year – has been expanded to list the top 2000  institutions, up from 1000.

It now features 99 countries and  territories, up from 61, making it the largest academic ranking of  global universities.

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Ranking the 13 best universities in South Africa