The universities coming after Wits and UCT in South Africa

 ·14 Jun 2024

The University of Cape Town and the University of the Witwatersrand have long been regarded as the best universities in South Africa, consistently topping the local listing of various global rankings for the last ten years.

However, while these institutions have a solid lead among South Africa’s other universities, looking at their performance in the rankings shows that they have not moved up much, or have even dropped down, while a handful of other local universities have shot up significantly.

This includes the likes of the University of Johannesburg, which now features among the top five universities in the latest QS World University Rankings for 2025, and has climbed a massive 327 places in the Centre for World University Rankings list for 2024—the biggest climber among all locally ranked institutes.

Even though Stellenbosch University is now commonly regarded as the third-best university in the country after UCT and Wits, it was a significant climb for the group, having wrested the position from the University of KwaZulu Natal over the past decade.

Among the lower-ranked universities, there have been significant shifts as well.

For all its controversies, the University of South Africa (Unisa) has managed to be one of the biggest climbers, globally – while North-West University (Potch) and the University of the Free State have also made waves.

The tables below outline how South Africa’s universities performed in global rankings over the last decade, as well has which institutes climbed the ladder – or fell down.

Note: The data used is the latest and earliest available from the respective global rankings.

QS World University Ranking

The latest global ranking to be released, the QSWUR ranked 11 local universities among the best in the world—six within the top 1000.

The ranking places a particular focus on research and employability, with a newer concentration on sustainability.

QSWUR Ranking2022 Rank2023 Rank2024 Rank2025 Rank2022/25
University of Cape Town227237173171+55
University of Witwatersrand424428264267+157
Stellenbosch University482454283296+186
University of Johannesburg434412306312+122
University of Pretoria323354-31
University of Kwazulu-Natal621-630587+34~

Most of South Africa’s top universities have had an excellent showing in the QS rankings over the past few years, with even UCT and Wits climbing much higher on list and the former entering the top 200.

Centre of World University Rankings

The CWUR for 2024 was published in May, with a strong showing from South African Universities.

The ranking is one of the more comprehensive looks at local institutes, ranking 13 among the top 100. It also provides great historic insight, with ranking data dating back to 2012.

South African universities debuted on the ranking in 2014, but only a handful of local institutions have shown market improvements since then.

Top universities, UCT, Wits, Stellenbosch and UKZN, have all dropped down the rankings over the past decade, while the likes of UJ, NWU and UFS have climbed – sometimes dramatically.

The CWUR grades universities without relying on surveys and university data submissions, and focuses on education, employability, faculty, and research.

The table below outlines the position changes for each university from debut to 2024.

CWUR RankingDebut YearDebut Rank2024 RankDebut/24
University of Cape Town2014267271-4
University of Witwatersrand2014114291-177
Stellenbosch University2014311440-129
University of KwaZulu Natal2014459483-24
University of Pretoria2014609538+71
University of Johannesburg2017951624+327
North-West University2018964869+95
University of the Free State201911831127+56
University of the Western Cape201910341154-120
Rhodes University201912241321-97
Nelson Mandela University201916201707-87
Tshwane University of Technology201919261959-33

Other university rankings

Other major university rankings, including the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), University Ranking of Academic Performance (URAP) or the Times Higher Education (THE) Rankings have not yet been updated for 2024/25.

However, their historical data shows similar patterns.

The URAP, which shows the ranked position of local universities shows that institutes like UJ, Stellenbosch Unisa and NWU have shot up the global ranking since 2018.

URAP2018 Rank2023 Rank2018/23
University of Cape Town241243-2
University of Witwatersrand321340-19
Stellenbosch University415362+53
University of KwaZulu Natal349371-22
University of Johannesburg627467+160
University of Pretoria474475-1
North-West University745589+156
University of Free State1004884+120
University of the Western Cape8851048-163

Meanwhile, the THE and ARWU rankings—which put universities in ranking ranges—also give indications of progress/regress; however, without official placements, it’s more difficult to parse the scale.

The table below outlines the position changes for each university from debut to 2024.

THE RankingDebut yearDebut Range2023 Range
University of Cape Town2014126167
Stellenbosch University2014301-350301-350
University of Witwatersrand2014226-250301-350
University of Johannesburg2017601-800401-500
University of KwaZulu Natal2016401-500501-600
University of Pretoria2016501-600501-600
ARWU Debut yearDebut Range2023 Range
University of Cape Town2014201-300201-300
University of Witwatersrand2014201-300301-400
Stellenbosch University2014401-500401-500
University of Pretoria2017501-600401-500
North-West University2017601-700501-600
University of Johannesburg2017401-500501-600
University of KwaZulu Natal2014401-500501-600

Read: ‘Billions’ needed for two new universities in South Africa

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