SA dominates in Times Higher Education rankings

The University of Cape Town tops the list of Times Higher Education's university rankings. (David Harrison, M&G)

The University of Cape Town tops the list of Times Higher Education's university rankings. (David Harrison, M&G)

“The ‘snapshot’ table, based on just one of Times Higher Education (THE)‘s five respected World University Rankings criteria - research influence, gives a good indication of what a full university ranking might look like for Africa and sees two South African institutions – the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) - take first and second place respectively,” THE said in its press release.

THE based its predictions solely on universities research influence and only considered institutions that had published a minimum of 500 research papers in the five year period assessed with at least 50 papers per year. The future-gazing was contained in a press release and said a lone Ugandan university - Makerere University – broke South Africa’s domination of the top five places by taking third place. It was followed by the University of Stellenbosch in fourth place and the University of KwaZulu-Natal in fifth place.

On Wednesday another university ranker, Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), published its rankings of the top 400 universities in the Brics grouping (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). UCT came in at 14th place, down five from 2014. 

The ranking is based on eight performance indicators: academic reputation, employer reputation, proportion of staff with a PhD, faculty to student ratio, research publication and citation rates, and proportion of international faculty and students.

Eleven South African universities made it into the top 200 including Wits at 28th place and Stellenbosch University in 34th place. But QS’s press release said it is “also notable that of these 11, seven are in a lower position in our Brics ranking than in 2014. As with UCT, most of the falls are slight.
However, the University of the Free State has fallen from the 101-110 bracket to 121-130, while the University of Kwazulu-Natal is down eight places from 60 to 68.

The overall results showed that China’s universities took seven of the top 10 places while Brazil, India and Russia have one apiece.

QS said China is strengthening its dominant position while India has seen a rise of more than 50% in the number of institutions listed in the top 200. The ranker said South Africa’s higher education problems could be attributed to struggles with lowering the faculty to student ratio at universities.

The University of Johannesburg (UJ) had the lowest faculty to student ratio even though UCT performed the best in the overall Brics rankings. Ranking universities according to how low this ratio is, “UJ placed 164th … Cape Town is at 184 and no other South African university is above 200 and five are below 300”. 

“These are poor results, which have been getting poorer. Nine of the 11 institutions we list from South Africa have fallen on this measure since 2014.”

QS said managers of these universities argue that their faculty to student ratio is essentially set by government, which presses them to admit more students but does not fund them well enough to hire more staff. 

“These tricky educational economics mean, too, that South Africa’s academics are not well-paid by world standards. As a result, many do not have a PhD. Even Cape Town is 158th in the Brics region on this measure, down 40 from last year. South Africa’s top performer here, Stellenbosch, is up 38 places to 130, still a far from successful outcome.”

Victoria John

Victoria John

Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011. Read more from Victoria John