With the #feesmustfall protests in full swing, South Africa's universities are making headlines here and abroad. At the same time, our tertiary education institutions have seen a drop in the global university rankings for 2016-2017. Though there may be a link between the two, the world rankings are based on several criteria, including the quality and quantity of academic research, staff's research ratings and academic reputation.
We look at how South Africa fared in the three most prominent ranking systems: Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, the QS World University Rankings and the Academic Ranking or World Universities (ARWU, also known as the Shanghai Rankings).
Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings
The Times Higher Education World University Rankings are considered one of the most influential university rankings in the world. It looks at the quantity as well as the quality of a university's research, as well as its academic reputation, among other criteria. THE has described its latest rankings as its "biggest analysis ever": this year, they ranked 980 institutions (compared to last year's 801).
This means bigger competition for the top spots. According to THE, this was one of the reasons for the drop in South African universities' positions on this year's rankings. Nevertheless, eight of our universities made it onto the list, with three in the Top 500:
* Note: Only the Top 200 universities have specific positions. After that, universities fall into groupings, for example "201-250" or "401-500".
- Number 148: University of Cape Town (down from number 120 in 2015)
- 182: University of the Witwatersrand (up from 201-250)
- 401-500 Stellenbosch University (down from 301-350)
- 501-600: University of KwaZulu-Natal (down from 401-500)
- 601-800: University of Johannesburg (not ranked in 2015)
- 601-800: University of Pretoria (down from 501-600)
- 601-800: University of the Western Cape (not ranked in 2015)
- 801+: University of South Africa (down from 601-800)
UCT is still South Africa's top university, but Wits showed the most remarkable improvement – it rose from the Top 250 to number 182. The Universities of Johannesburg and the Western Cape were ranked for the first time, both in the Top 800. The rest all saw a drop in rankings. According to THE, this decline had a lot to do with a drop in these universities' reputations.
QS World University Rankings 2016-2017
QS World University Rankings bases its results on peer reviews from more than 100,000 academics and employers, as well as on number of citations, faculty-to-student ratios and the number of international students and staff members. QS also rates universities for specific faculties and across 42 different subject fields. Out of a total of 916 institutions ranked this year, nine South African universities made the list:
- 191: University of Cape Town (down from 171 in 2015)
- 359: University of the Witwatersrand (down from 331)
- 395: Stellenbosch University (up from 401-410)
- 551-600: University of Pretoria (down from 501-550)
- 551-600: Rhodes University (down from 501-550)
- 601-650: University of Johannesburg (the same as last year)
- 651-700: University of KwaZulu-Natal (down from 551-600)
- 701+: North-West University (the same as last year)
- 701+: University of Western Cape (the same as last year)
UCT and Wits were ranked as number 1 and 2 in Africa respectively, and Stellenbosch came in as the continent's fourth best university. Out of the BRICS universities, UCT was number 14, Wits 28th, Stellenbosch 34th and Pretoria at number 49.
Stellenbosch was the only university whose rankings had improved.
In the specific subject rankings, UCT and Wits did quite well. In several subjects, UCT ranked in the Top 100, including in Politics, Medicine, Law, Architecture and Education. Wits did very well in Archaeology, ranking 26th in the world.
Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU or Shanghai Rankings)
The Shanghai Rankings has been praised as one of the most consistent and transparent lists. The criteria include the number of research articles published in top scientific journals Nature and Science, as well as the number of Nobel Prize and field medal winners. A total of 1,200 universities are ranked, with only the Top 500 making it to the published list.
Of these 500 universities, four are South African. The Universities of Cape Town and Witwatersrand are both in the Top 300, and share the spot for top university in the country. The other two are the Universities of Stellenbosch and KwaZulu-Natal, both in the 401-500 rankings.
Only UCT and Wits feature in the five broad subject rankings: Wits ranks in the Top 150 for Social Sciences and the Top 200 for Medicine, while UCT ranks among the world's 200 best universities for Life Sciences and Agriculture.
Are these ratings correct and fair?
Though generally respected, the global university rankings are also controversial. The criteria used to rank universities are criticised for favouring English-speaking universities – in fact, in the Top 10 rankings of all the systems above, only one university is not American or British. There is also a bias towards the natural or "hard" sciences, while humanities and social sciences tend to be neglected. ARWU is also criticised for its focus on Nobel Prizes and other awards.
Many critics also argue that it's not always possible to adequately measure the quality of teaching by using numbers. And although South African universities have mostly slipped in the rankings, this doesn't necessarily mean the academic quality has deteriorated. Many South African universities continue to produce excellent results.
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