SA slides in World University Rankings. Mediocrity the new norm?

It’s no surprise that South African universities have slipped on the QS World University Rankings 2016/17. The past year and a bit has been dogged with violence, as students seek free education but at the same time a select few destroy library’s and buildings, the exact thing they’re after. It does boggle the mind but one must remember it’s the few that are making the majority look bad.

And according to the rankings South Africa has only three universities in the Top 400, with the University of Cape Town the top ranked at 191.

Steuart Pennington, Mr SA Good News, takes a look at the data. His biggest concern is that people accept the findings, with some arguing that the ‘criteria followed failed to take into account realities in Third World countries.’ And as Pennington says, why would you want to compete in the Third World, when you have the armoury to make a go of it globally. Mediocrity gets you nowhere. – Stuart Lowman

by Steuart Pennington*

There are 20 000 registered universities globally. In SA we have 23. QS World University Rankings researches the perceptions of 60 000 academics and 30 000 business people in compiling an Annual University Ranking Survey.

Nine of our Universities rank in the top 800, the top 4%. That’s Good News.

BUT, many of our Universities have been paralysed by the #Feesmustfall campaign and demands for free tertiary education, our President’s instruction that fees cannot be increased next year just adds to this paralysis, as does the mad vandalism embarked on uncaring student thugs. That’s Bad News.

UCT_Upper_Campus large

University of Cape Town

The consequences of which must be obvious:

University reputation will deteriorate

  • University rankings will drop

  • University standards will be under pressure and inevitably suffer

  • Good academics will leave

  • University security budgets will become monstrous, money that could be spent better elsewhere
  • The thirteenth edition of the QS World University Rankings tells this story, issued inLondon, 6th September 2016 and compiled today by global higher education think tank QS Quacquarelli Symonds. It confirms MIT Massachusetts Institute of Technology as top ranked for a fifth consecutive year.

    Two of South Africa’s top-400 universities dropped this year, with the University of Cape Town dropping twenty places. It now ranks 191st, though is still South Africa’s best university.

    Other key findings for South Africa include:

    The University of the Witwatersrand drops 28 places. It is now ranked 359th;

  • • Stellenbosch University breaks into the top-400;
  • • The University of Pretoria falls from the 501-550 band to the 551-600 band;
  • • Rhodes University also drops from the 501-550 band to the 551-600 band;
  • • The University of Johannesburg remains stable in the 601-650 band;
  • • Two new South African universities enter the rankings this year. These are the University of the Western Cape and North-West University.
  • • Both rank in the 701+ band;
  • • They enter the rankings as part of this year’s expansion. 916 universities are now ranked, up from 800 last year.

  • QS

    QS Quacquarelli Symonds 2004-2016

    South African institutions struggle across all of QS’s metrics this year:

    • Seven of their nine universities see their rank reduced for academic reputation;

  • • Seven of their nine universities see their rank reduced for employer reputation;
  • • The same number see their lower ranks for faculty/student ratio, QS’s measure of teaching quality;
  • • The relative research impact of South African universities decreases this year. Six of South Africa’s ranked universities see lower ranks for citations per faculty;
  • • The three that improve their research performance are the University of the Witwatersrand, the University of Pretoria, and the University of Kwazulu-Natal.
  • Ben Sowter, Head of Research at QS’s Intelligence Unit, suggests that South Africa’s performance follows this year’s global trend, which emphasise the importance of targeted, prolonged investment. He notes that South Africa’s universities have been suffering funding shortfalls for a period of years now, and that recent fee freezes continue to exacerbate this shortfall.

    Wits_University_Great_Hall LARGE

    University of the Witwatersrand

    Sowter said: “This year’s rankings imply that levels of investment are determining who progresses and who regresses. Institutions in countries that provide high levels of targeted funding, whether from endowments or from the public purse, are rising. On the other hand, Western European nations making or proposing cuts to public research spending are losing ground to their US and Asian counterparts.”

    I was intrigued to read “SA’s universities have vehemently challenged their across-the-board drop in world rankings”. S’Thembile Cele writes,“saying the criteria followed failed to take into account realities in Third World countries.”


    Since when do we measure the quality of our institutional capacity against the realities of Third World countries?

    Do we do that with our banks, our hospitals, our courts, our stock exchange, our schools – even our public service?

    Our aspirations should be ‘best in the world’ not ‘best in the Third World’.

    Next thing we’ll be arguing for a Third World Olympics, or a Third World Rugby World Cup – don’t want to be competing with the best in the world now do we?


    Please distribute to every University Campus SRC.

    • Steuart Pennington, CEO, South Africa – The Good News.

    * For more in-depth business news, visit or simply sign up for the daily newsletter.

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