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What are South Africa’s top universities?

South Africa boasts some of the top universities in Africa, and they are also held in high regard internationally. Which university is “the best”, however, depends on the research agency doing the ranking, as well as which faculty is being focused on. The University of Cape Town and the University of the Witwatersrand are ranked high on most international listings.

The Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings 2015/16 poll over 76 000 academics and 44 000 employers worldwide, as well as considering factors such as student-faculty ratios and citations to compile its top universities list. It ranks the University of Cape Town as 171st overall in the world and top in South Africa, followed by Stellenbosch University at number 302 in the world and University of the Witwatersrand at number 331 in in the world, overall. 

When the results are filtered by academic reputation, South Africa’s top three are the University of Cape Town at 150, University of the Witwatersrand at 297 and Stellenbosch University at 314. Filtering by employer reputation, the University of Cape Town is ranked at 220, University of Pretoria at 313 and University of the Witwatersrand at 360. In citations per faculty, Stellenbosch leads in South Africa and is number 96 in the world, followed by the University of Cape Town at number 278 and University of the Witwatersrand at number 398.

Meanwhile, 4 International Colleges & Universities (4icu.org) ranks South Africa’s top universities as: the University of Cape Town, University of South Africa, University of Stellenbosch, University of Pretoria and University of the Witwatersrand.

Choosing a university

Choosing a university involves a balancing act — weighing up where your chosen courses are offered, how good those faculties are, whether you can afford them and qualify for enrolment there, and the logistics involved in attending the chosen university. Factors to consider include: 

• International standing. Check how highly the university — and your chosen course at the university — is ranked globally. If you’re considering working abroad, investigate whether the qualification is recognised internationally, and if not, what additional courses you’d have to follow to work in your chosen field abroad.

• How employable are its graduates? Do your homework: ask recruitment agencies and leading enterprises in your chosen field for their views on graduates from the universities offering the course you’ve chosen. If possible, speak to students currently enrolled in the course as well as recent graduates from the course, to ask about the pros and cons of that particular university, faculty and course.

• Will you be accepted? Each university and each course has different acceptance criteria. It is important to determine well ahead of applying whether your grades are likely to get you accepted into the course you’d like to enrol in. 

• Attend the open day to evaluate the environment. One size does not fit all in education. If you prefer small classes and one-on-one engagement with a lecturer, you will not flourish in an environment where 300 students crowd into each lecture. Assess the research labs, libraries, sports facilities and canteens. If sport, social activities, community service or cultural activities are important to you, determine whether these are available. Look at the accommodation you’d be living in and the transport infrastructure you’d be using. Assess whether student support such as career counselling and job placement is available. Consider whether the overall environment is really conducive to your style of learning.

• Can you afford it? While the priciest universities may be your first choice, harsh financial realities may force you to downgrade your expectations. Remember that in addition to the cost of enrolment and tuition, you will need accommodation, food, study resources, books and transport. It is unrealistic to sacrifice regular meals in a bid to pay study fees, or to attempt all-night bartending work to raise the necessary fees, since a lack of adequate nutrition and sleep will impact your results. Determine whether financial assistance is available, and if you qualify. Consider whether lower-cost options such as accredited distance education, short courses or college instead of university will better meet your education needs.

Ranking the universities

The Times Higher Education World University rankings, generally considered a reputable guide to top international universities, lists South Africa’s top six universities for 2015/16 as follows:
1 University of Cape Town

2 University of the Witwatersrand

3 Stellenbosch University

4 University of KwaZulu-Natal

5 University of Pretoria

6 University of South Africa

The Centre for World University Rankings (CWUR), described as the largest and most comprehensive academic ranking of world universities, places South Africa’s top universities as follows:

1 University of the Witwatersrand (149 worldwide)

2 University of Cape Town (248 worldwide)

3 Stellenbosch University (306 worldwide)

4 University of KwaZulu-Natal (478 worldwide)

5 University of Pretoria (678 worldwide)

CWUR ranks universities on eight indicators: quality of education, alumni employment, quality of faculty, publications, influence, citations, broad impact and patents.

Accounting: non-accredited courses add years to training path

With up to 829 800 unfilled positions in the accounting profession in South Africa, there are myriad opportunities for graduates with accounting and finance qualifications. However, the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA) warns that training is longer than many prospective students realise, and that only accredited courses result in appropriate qualifications. 

Mandi Olivier, head of professional development at SAICA, says: “Many people don’t realise that qualifying as a chartered accountant takes a minimum of seven years. The first step to complete on this pathway is the completion of a SAICA-accredited university degree. Many students enrol for programmes they think are accredited by SAICA and end up having to repeat a portion of their degree.” 

She says that while individual employers may have a preference for graduates from certain universities (for example due to physical location), all SAICA-accredited programmes are widely recognised by employers.  “SAICA-accredited programmes are those BCom or equivalent undergraduate and related postgraduate programmes that lead to qualification as a chartered accountant in South Africa. These SAICA-accredited programmes are subject to ongoing monitoring once they have been accredited, and one of the accreditation criteria relates to universities getting feedback from employers on their graduates, to ensure they continue to meet employers’ needs in delivering appropriately skilled graduates.”

The following universities offer SAICA-accredited undergraduate and postgraduate university programmes:

•    Monash South Africa

•    Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University

•    North-West University

•    Rhodes University

•    University of Cape Town

•    University of Fort Hare

•    University of the Free State

•    University of Johannesburg

•    University of KwaZulu-Natal

•    University of Limpopo  (does not offer a postgraduate programme)

•     University of South Africa

•     University of Stellenbosch

•     University of Pretoria

•    University of the Western Cape

•    University of the Witwatersrand

After completing an accredited SAICA undergraduate degree, prospective chartered accountants also need to complete a one-year SAICA-accredited postgraduate programme, known generally as the Certificate in the Theory of Accounting.  Further requirements to complete this qualification include completion of a 36-month learnership (known as a training contract) with a registered training office, completion of a professional programme and passing both of SAICA’s professional exams (the Initial Test of Competence and the Assessment of Professional Competence).

‘The sexiest job of the 21st century’

The Harvard Business Review has described data science as the “sexiest job of the 21st century”, and demand for professionals qualified to work with advanced analytics far outstrips supply. In fact, McKinsey estimated a shortfall of 40-60% in the US alone by 2018. SAS Institute, a leading global data analytics solutions firm, estimates this shortfall to be far higher in South Africa and Africa.

According to Murray de Villiers, general manager of shared services at SAS Institute South Africa, SAS collaborates with several local universities to deliver advanced analytics courses and solution-specific training that meets the needs of local enterprises. He says no university delivers more advanced analytics training than North-West University’s Centre for Business Mathematics and Informatics. 

“North-West University’s master’s degree in data sciences is based on US best practice and is recognised both nationally and internationally for the high level of training and the experience students receive during the course. In fact, all of its students have [secured] lucrative jobs before they even graduate.” 

North-West University has been called upon to assist other universities in developing their advanced analytics curricula. Both SAS and North-West University collaborate with feeder universities such as the University of the Western Cape and Nelson Mandela University with a view to producing a high calibre of informatics and data sciences honours students, says De Villiers.

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