The University of Cape Town (UCT) has slipped down 13 places in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2013-14, published on Wednesday night. As the only South African university to make it into the top 200 rankings, it is now 126 on the list.
The annual rankings "use 13 separate performance indicators to examine a university's strengths against all its core missions – teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook", editor of Times Higher Education, Phil Baty, said.
Stellenbosch University also slipped down from being within the 251-275 group of 620 ranked universities to the 301-350 group.
Baty said South Africa is "struggling to retain its global status as other nations, notably in East Asia, invest heavily in their academies".
"Both the universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch have fallen down the tables this year.
This is a concern for the whole continent: Africa needs globally competitive universities to help drive economic and political growth," he said.
The top spot in the rankings are taken by the California Institute of Technology and sharing second place are Harvard University and the University of Oxford.
Another set of rankings published on 10 September – Quacquarelli Symonds – ranked UCT as being 145 on their list.
Six other South African universities were also ranked in the 800 universities assessed by Quacquarelli Symonds.
The University of the Witwatersrand came in at 313 and Stellenbosch University ranked at 387.
They are accused of not taking into consideration the different social responsibilities a university in a developing country like South Africa might have compared to a university in a developed country like the US.
Baty acknowledged that developing countries "have different needs and goals, and that many African universities should be focused first and foremost on national rather than international needs".
But he referred the Mail & Guardian to a recent article in Times Higher Education by UCT vice-chancellor Max Price who said that it is also important for Africa to have universities that are competing at the forefront of global knowledge transfer.
"Indeed, this is essential for South Africa to continue to grow," Baty said.
Price says: "Yet there are good reasons why the production of new knowledge should not be the preserve of the rich and powerful countries of the world.
The question of North-South inequality is not just an ideological matter nor an issue of national pride – as perhaps the Olympic medals tables might be.
Rather, it is about economic development as developing countries transform into high-tech knowledge economies, albeit to varying degrees."