These are the 9 best universities in South Africa for academic performance

ShanghaiRanking Consultancy has published the 2020 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), listing the top 1000 institutions globally – featuring 9 from South Africa.

The ARWU 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. All subsequent scores are relative to the top university.

In 2020, Harvard is once again the top university, scoring a perfect 100 in every category except the per capita academic performance, where the California Institute of Technology came out on top.

South African universities

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.

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.

The 2020 ranking represents a significant shift for many of the listed local universities.

Wits tops the local ranking, over the University of Cape Town. The two universities are closely matched across all category scores, but Wits has double UCT’s score in the category of highly cited research.

Stellenbosch University has also climbed the rankings, pushing past the University of Pretoria to now rank as the third best university in the country, according to these measures.

Overall, of the eight universities ranked in 2019, half improved their scores in 2020.

Those that saw improvements include Wits, Stellenbosch, the University of Johannesburg and North-West University.

UCT, UP, the University of KwaZulu Natal and Unisa saw their scores drop.

Rhodes University joins the 2020 ranking in ninth place, overall.

The table below outlines how South Africa’s universities scored:

Rank University 2019 2020
201-300 University of the Witwatersrand 15.9 16.3
201-300 University of Cape Town 17.6 15.3
401-500 Stellenbosch University 11.3 11.5
401-500 University of Pretoria 12.4 10.9
501-600 University of KwaZulu Natal 11.2 9.6
601-700 University of Johannesburg 8.7 9.0
601-700 North-West University 8.5 8.6
801-900 University of South Africa 7.2 7.0
901-1000 Rhodes University 6.4

A breakdown of the scoring can be viewed here.


Read: Only one South African university climbed the latest global ranking

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These are the 9 best universities in South Africa for academic performance