The 8 best universities in South Africa according to these key measures

ShanghaiRanking Consultancy has published the 2019 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), listing the top 1000 institutions globally – featuring eight from South Africa.

The ARWI is one of several international league tables that are published throughout the year, assessing more than 1,800 universities on six key measures.

  •  Alumni of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals – Alumni (10%)  
  • Quality of Faculty  – Staff of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals (20%)
  • Highly Cited Researchers (20%)
  • Papers published in Nature and Science (20%)
  • Papers indexed in Science Citation Index-Expanded and Social Science Citation Index (20%) 
  • Per capita academic performance of an institution (10%)

Universities are ranked by several indicators of academic or research performance, including alumni and staff winning Nobel Prizes, highly cited researchers, papers published in Nature and Science, papers indexed in major citation indices, and the per capita academic performance of an institution.

Scores are determined in each field, weighted, and then balanced in relation to the top-perming university, which is assigned a value of 100.

As with previous years, the top university globally is Harvard, followed by Stanford University, University of Cambridge, and MIT.

While the ARWU does not publish the overall scored for lower-ranked universities, it does make its full methodology known, along with all the stats it uses to calculate it.

South African universities

For South African universities, it is then easy to determine how the local institutions rank relative to each other, even if their overall global placing is still only expressed in broad terms.

In 2019, the University of Cape Town has overtaken the University of the Witwatersrand, to again beat out other local universities in yet another global ranking.

UCT saw the biggest jump in its overall score, but of the eight universities ranked, five others saw improvements.

The only two universities to drop in score were Wits and Stellenbosch, though the latter’s drop was marginal.

In terms of global positioning, UCT now ranks within the top 300 (having fallen outside of this bracket in 2018) along with Wits, while UKZN, Stellenbosch and the University of Pretoria are now all within the top 500 (with UKZN now moving into this bracket for the first time).

The University of Johannesburg is now joined by the University of the North West in the top 700, while Unisa has dropped out of the top 800, despite its score increase, to now fall within the top 900.

Rank University 2018 2019
201-300 University of Cape Town 14.5 17.6
201-300 University of the Witwatersrand 17.0 15.9
401-500 University of Pretoria 12.0 12.4
401-500 Stellenbosch University 11.5 11.3
401-500 University of KwaZulu Natal 10.3 11.2
601-700 University of Johannesburg 8.4 8.7
401-500 North-West University 6.8 8.5
801-900 University of South Africa 5.7 7.2

Best subjects to study

The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) also recently highlighted the subjects that South African universities excel in.

The group’s subject ranking system is heavily focused on research quality, impact, and collaboration, and assesses more than 1,600 institutions from 83 countries across 54 subjects in five broad subject areas.

These include: natural sciences, engineering, life sciences, medical sciences, and social sciences.

For each field of study, the top 500 universities are listed, with 12 South African universities ranked among them in almost all fields.

Where South African institutes generally excel is in social sciences, with the  country’s top universities also featuring in the natural sciences, life sciences and certain engineering fields.

Engineering is generally South Africa’s weakest area, with our universities showing in only seven of the 22 subject fields – featuring most prominently in the mining and mineral engineering category.

While South African universities mostly rank in the lower-reaches of each category (outside of the top 200), several made it into the top 100, and even the top 50.

The University of Johannesburg attained the highest ranking of all SA universities, listed as the 18th best university in the world for its hospitality and tourism courses (up from 20th in 2018). Wits University meanwhile ranked as the 44th best university in the world for its mining engineering courses, and in the top 75 for public health sciences and clinical medicine courses.

The University of Cape Town ranked 20th in the world for its mining engineering courses, and 36th for oceanography, while the University of Pretoria ranked 45th overall for veterinary sciences.

UCT featured in the most subject rankings (23), but the University of Pretoria ranked in the most engineering fields (6).

The full ranking of subjects, broken down by South African universities, can be found here: The best subjects to study at South Africa’s top universities


Read: Ranking the 13 best universities in South Africa

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The 8 best universities in South Africa according to these key measures