Top 9 universities in South Africa – and the best subjects to study at each

The ShanghaiRanking Consultancy has published its 2021 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), listing the top 1,000 universities globally, including nine from South Africa.

The ARWU is one of several international league tables that are published throughout the year, assessing more than 2,000 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 valued out of 100. All subsequent scores are relative to the top university.

Harvard University tops the ranking list for the 19th year, while Stanford University and the University of Cambridge remain at second and third. MIT, Berkeley, Princeton, Oxford, Columbia, Caltech, and Chicago, fill the top 10 places.

In Continental Europe, Paris-Saclay University (13th) rises one place, followed by ETH Zurich (21th). Among Asian universities, The University of Tokyo (24th) keeps its leading position.

Tsinghua University (28th) moves up one slot, holding on to the second-best institution in Asia. The University of Melbourne (33th) tops other universities in Oceania for an eleventh consecutive year.

Two European universities move up into the Top 50: The University of Munich ranked 48th, and Utrecht University in the Netherlands rises two places to 50th.

Three universities enter the top 100 list, including Sun Yat-sen University (89th) in the Chinese Mainland, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (90th), and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology (94th) in Israel.

There are seven new entrants from Asia and Oceania appearing on the Top 500 list, while 38 universities enter into top 1,000 for the first time.

South African universities

Nine South African universities made the list in 2021, led by the University of Cape Town, which ranked within the top 300, globally. The University of the Witwatersrand ranked second locally, and within the top 400 globally.

Stellenbosch University and the University of Pretoria were the only other local universities to rank within the top 500 globally.

Best subjects

The ARWU also tracks how each university ranks in various subjects and fields of study.

South African universities largely fall outside the top 100 global universities for most subjects, but there are a few standouts.

UCT ranks within the top 50 globally for Environmental Science & Engineering (23rd) and Oceanography (48th), while Wits ranks within the top 100 for Mining & Mineral Engineering and Public Health (both within the 76-100 range).

The University of Johannesburg has the highest-ranked field in the country, placing 18th globally for Hospitality & Tourism Management.

Other standouts include Stellenbosh University’s Food Science & Technology curriculum (76-100), the University of Pretoria’s Veterinary Sciences division (51-75), and the UKZN’s performance in Public Health (76-100).


University of Cape Town


University of the Witwatersrand


Stellenbosch University


University of Pretoria


North-West University


University of Johannesburg


University of KwaZulu Natal


University of South Africa


The University of the Free State does not have any subjects ranked.


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Top 9 universities in South Africa – and the best subjects to study at each