Only one South African university climbed the latest global ranking

South Africa’s top universities have slid down the rankings in the latest QS World University Ranking for 2021 – but the University of Johannesburg (UJ) has bucked the trend, climbing into the country’s top three.

UJ has been on an upward trajectory on the QS listing for the last three years, having been the only local institution to consistently climb the rankings. The university moved up from the 601-650 range in the rankings, to the 551-560 range in 2019, and then moved into the 501-510 band in the 2020.

The 2021 QS ranking marks the university’s entry into the global top 500, and its placement has pushed Stellenbosch University into fourth position locally.

All other ranked universities in South Africa moved down the global rankings, or remained in their broad tail-range.

The University of Cape Town, which is still ranked as the top university in the country, was pushed out of the top 200, moving to 220th overall; while the University of the Witwatersrand saw a small drop out of the top 400 to 403rd.

Stellenbosch University fell from 427th to 456th overall, while the University of Pretoria slipped from the 551-560 range into the 561-570 range.

Two universities – Rhodes and UKZN – were still ranked in the 801-1000 range. However, the University of the Western Cape fell out of the top 1000 and was not ranked in the 2021 ranking at all.

In the overall ranking, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was named the world’s best university for a record-breaking ninth consecutive year, the group said.

The top three institutions remain American: MIT is followed by Stanford University (2nd) and Harvard University (3rd). Britain’s top institution is the University of Oxford, which falls to fifth. Its compatriot competitor, the University of Cambridge, remains seventh.

Notably, 112 of America’s 153 ranked universities fell in the rankings, with only 34 recording improvements. This is primarily due to collective relative decline in QS’s measures of academic standing and research impact, the group said.

Other takeaways from the ranking include:

  • Continental Europe’s best university is ETH Zurich (6th no-change);
  • Asia’s top university is the National University of Singapore (11th);
  • China’s Tsinghua University reaches a new all-time high (15th);
  • Latin America’s leader is the Universidad de Buenos Aires (66th, up 8 places). Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (100th) becomes the first Mexican university ever to achieve a top-100 place;
  • Universities in Russia and Malaysia continue to rise: Lomonosov Moscow State University (74th) and Universiti Malaya (59th) reached record highs.


The QSWUR is based on a mix of survey responses and hard data across six indicators, compiled and weighted to formulate a final score.

Tens of thousands of academics and employers contribute to the rankings through the QS global surveys, while QS said it analyses millions of citations from academic papers. Only  1,000 institutions are ranked.

The ranking’s biggest indicator, accounting for 40% of the total score, is based on academic reputation.

Academic reputation is measured using a global survey, in which academics were asked to identify the institutions where they believe the best work is currently taking place within their field of expertise.

The indicators and scores are:

  • Academic reputation (40%)
  • Employer reputation (10%)
  • Student-to-faculty ratio (20%)
  • Citations per faculty (20%)
  • International faculty ratio (5%)
  • International student ratio (5%)

Read: Ranking 13 of the best universities in South Africa

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Only one South African university climbed the latest global ranking