South Africa is known to have some of the best universities on the continent. Search any global university ranking and you’re likely to find at least two or three South African universities listed. There are many that don’t make the cut but we at Africa.com believe that South Africa offers world-class learning experiences—so much so that they are sought out by other African students and thousands from abroad. Following our piece on the Top 10 Universities in Africa, Africa.com now brings you the Top 10 Universities in South Africa.
1. UNIVERSITY OF CAPE TOWN (UCT); CAPE TOWN
South Africa’s oldest university is also often rated as the continent’s best. Established in 1829, initially as a high school for boys, the University of Cape Town (UCT) makes a regular appearance on international university rankings. Most recently, it secured the 113th spot on the reputable global Times Higher Education World University Rankings list. Located on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, UCT is the academic home to more than 25 000 students. Of those, close to 20 percent are international students who come from over 100 different countries, both on the continent (over 40) and from abroad. They’re taught by close to 1,000 permanent academics employed by the university.
Apart from offering the best sports management diploma in the world—an honor recently bestowed by the Eduniversal International Scientific Committee—UCT is also one of the country’s most green educational institutions. Over the past five years a number of sustainability projects were launched, including Green Campus Initiative, an effort focused on making UCT more environmentally-friendly.
Notable alumni include heart surgeon Christiaan Barnard and at least three Nobel Laureates, including biophysicist Sir Aaron Klug (also a WITS alum), the late Professor Alan MacLeod Cormack, and author JM Coetzee.
2. UNIVERSITY OF THE WITWATERSRAND (WITS); JOHANNESBURG
Located in the heart of central Johannesburg, Wits is considered one of the top research institutions on the continent, boasting 15 South African Research Chairs, seven research institutes and 20 research units. Just under 900 academic staff cater to over 28 000 students, seven percent of whom are international students. According to the university, 90 percent of its graduates obtain permanent employment within one-year of graduating.
Along with 14 museums and two art galleries, its 12 libraries allow students access to over 1 million book volumes, 400,000 journal titles and over 40,000 new electronic resources. The university is also home to one of the largest fossil collections in the Southern Hemisphere.
Notable alumni include former South African President Nelson Mandela (he studied law in the 1940s), political activist Helen Suzman, former judge Richard Goldstone, and businessman Patrice Motsepe. Along with Mandela, the university is the alma mater of three other Nobel Prize Laureates—biophysicist Aaron Klug, biologist Sydney Brenner, and author Nadine Gordimer.
3. STELLENBOSCH UNIVERSITY; WESTERN CAPE
From a gymnasium to a college, to what is now Stellenbosch University. Popularly known by its nickname “Maties,” it’s one of the top research universities in the country and has been ranked as the second best university in South Africa (and Africa) by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings list.
Located in the expansive wine region in the country’s second oldest town, the predominantly Afrikaans-language university is home to over 28,000 students, taught by 915 lecturers. Close to 10 percent of those admitted are international students. Students there have been leaders in innovation. One such example of success is the iShack system, developed to improve the living conditions of those living in shack/informal settlements through the use of a basic solar energy system. The initiative was recently awarded a grant by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that will help upscale the project.
With a strong focus of research throughout all faculties, the schools Desmond Tutu TB Centre recently won an international award for its research on childhood tuberculosis (TB) and for its community-based approach to TB and HIV care.
4. RHODES UNIVERSITY; EASTERN CAPE
Named after Cecil John Rhodes—founder of what we now know as Zimbabwe as well as the diamond company De Beers—Rhodes University is one of the smaller in terms of student size (around 6,000 total), but also one of the most diverse. Located in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, it’s a popular student exchange destination—international students from close to 60 countries across the globe fill up a quarter of the classrooms. It also allows for a favourable staff to student ratio, on average one lecturer to 15 students.
Rhodes is also home to the International Library of African Music (ILAM), an institution dedicated to the study and preservation of the continents’ music and oral arts. So extensive is its collection that it’s said to be “greatest repository of African music in the world”.
The university’s school of Journalism and Media Studies is considered to be one of the best in the country, with many top journalists graduating from there. Notable Old Rhodians include virologist Max Theiler, who was awarded a Nobel Prize for developing a yellow fever vaccine, author Wilbur Smith, and internationally recognised journalist Anand Naidoo.
5. UNIVERSITY OF THE FREE STATE; BLOEMFONTEIN
Before 2001, the University of the Free State had already undergone two name changes. The most recent was to “reflect the real character of the university and its environment.” Based in the country’s judicial capital of Bloemfontein, the University is made of three campuses spread across the city, all of which hosts more than 33,000 students, including more than 2,000 from abroad.
From being the first university in the country to have a Department of Sign Language (and the first to offer a Ph.D. in this field), to being the only institution on the continent with a postgraduate programme in Disaster Management, the university has proven itself to be a leader across various sectors. Their Doping Control Laboratory one of only two in Africa—providing dope-testing for both local and international sporting events.
Former South African president P.W. Botha was an alum of the university, as well as cricketer Hansie Cronje and author Antjie Krog.
6. UNIVERSITY OF KWAZULU-NATAL; DURBAN
Located in two cities—Durban and Pietermaritzburg—with five campuses, the University of Kwazulu-Natal (UKZN) was established in 2004 following a merger between University of Durban-Westville and the University of Natal. It now has a population of just over 42,000 students and close to 1 600 academic staff, making it one of the largest universities in sub-Saharan Africa. Over 2,500 students are foreign—the majority come from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, others from afar as China and India.
The university’s law school has the highest number of students who graduated cum laude in 2011, while its medical school campus is home to CAPRISA, one of the largest and most successful HIV and AIDS research centres in South Africa. It also produced one of the highest university research outputs during 2010, ranking third overall, contributing close to 12 percent of the country’s research publications by major universities.
Notable alumni include Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, Chief Justice Honourable Mogoeng Mogoeng, and businessman Sol Kerzner.
7. UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN CAPE (UWC); CAPE TOWN
The University of the Western Cape played a crucial role during the country’s apartheid struggle. In the early 1960s, the first group of less than 200 students were enrolled at the institution established for separate those classified as “coloured.” It was where many non-white political activists from across the country sought an education. During turbulent times, it was also the site for numerous anti-apartheid protests. Now, as it celebrates 50 years of existence, the university has around 15,000 students.
As you enter the campus, you’re greeted by a private nature reserve rich in fynbos and other natural vegetation—functioning as nature’s classroom for ecological training and research. Earlier this year, the university scooped the inaugural Green Campus of the Year award for its various environmentally-friendly initiatives, including its recycling projects and the use of solar powered golf carts on campus for workers to get around. UWC also houses the largest dental school in Africa. It’s accredited as a World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre, and is considered to be the best such school on the continent.
The likes of political activist Allan Boesak, and Danny Jordaan, CEO of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, have graduated from UWC.
8. UNIVERSITY OF PRETORIA (UP); PRETORIA
The university of Pretoria (locally known as “Tuks / Tukkies” due to it’s previous name, Transvaal University College) is considered as one of the leading research universities in South Africa, and is also one of the largest largest in the country. It has grown from a four-bedroom residential property with just over 30 students in the early 1900s, to at least 50,000 students today. The university now offers more than 1,800 programmes at it’s main campus located in the country’s capital and at its other campus spread across the province.
In September this year, the university launched a new research initiative focused on the country’s future energy security, IRT on Energy. It’s also set to become the first university on the continent to offer simulated underground mining training at a Virtual Reality Centre.
UP is also home to the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), one of the country’s leading Business Schools, which offers internationally accredited MBA programmes. It was recently named the top business school in Africa on the UK Financial Times Executive Education rankings list.
9. UNIVERSITY OF JOHANNESBURG (UJ); JOHANNESBURG
In 2005, three institutions merged to form the University of Johannesburg. The result is four campuses at various locations across the city, including Auckland Park and Soweto. UJ caters to over 48,000 enrolled students – its international student count has more than doubled in recent years to 2 000.
The university has invested heavily in research output in recent years. With its 20 research centres with more than 90 rated researchers, accredited output has slowly been increasing (by over 43 percent within a four-year period) particularly in areas of life sciences and physical sciences, language, linguistics and literature, as well as business commerce and management sciences.
10. CAPE PENINSULA UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY (CPUT); CAPE TOWN
Just over 32 000 students are enrolled at CPUTs two campuses—one located near Cape Town CBD and the other in Bellville, as well as their other locations across the city that offers specialist training (such as their hotel school in Granger Bay). The university came about following a merger between two Technical Colleges in 2005. Since then it has grown to be one of the top education institutions, producing some of the best players across a range of disciplines.
CPUT is known for excelling in creative, specialist areas of study and for taking a practical, hands-on approach to teaching (particularly in areas of design). The Chocolate and Confectionary Centre is a recent example of its efforts to inspire innovation. The first of its kind in South Africa, the Centre will be built thanks to a donation by the country’s Department of Trade and Industry.
METHODOLOGY FOR THE TOP 10 UNIVERSITIES IN SOUTH AFRICA
As with any similar list that determines which universities are “best,” Africa.com collected both quantitative and qualitative data to determine which universities in South Africa would make our Top 10 List.
Our criteria include the following: 1) undergraduate and graduate school reputation among higher education peers; 2) student selectivity for entering undergraduate class; 3) quality and quantity of faculty research, including depth of research facilities and engagement beyond immediate community, and 4) international student ratio—the degree to which institution draws students from outside of its national boundaries.
In addition to collecting quantitative data on the criteria above, we used our extensive network in South Africa for qualitative input as a “reality check” to the results that our data yielded. These “reality checks” resulted in some small, but important adjustments to the list.
We are very proud of our list of the best universities in South Africa, and hope that it is a useful tool for those who seek a relative comparison of institutions of higher education in the country.
As always, we welcome your feedback.