Centre for World University Rankings – The SA Story

By Steuart Pennington

It is estimated that there are 20,000 universities globally, South Africa has 26.

There are a number of agencies which rank universities; The QS Survey, The Times Higher Education Survey and the Centre for World University Rankings (CWUR) to name a few.

The CWUR grades universities on four factors without relying on surveys and university data submissions: quality of education (25%), alumni employment (25%), quality of faculty (10%), and research performance (40%).

This year, 19,788 institutions were ranked, and those that placed at the top made the global 2,000 list.

SA Position

Thirteen universities from South Africa feature in the 2021-2022 list of the top 2,000 universities (CWUR). Statistically 13 of our Universities are in the top 10% globally and 7 in the top 5%. They are led by the University of Cape Town, ranked 269th globally, and followed by the University of the Witwatersrand at 292nd. Stellenbosch University, University of KwaZulu-Natal, and the University of Pretoria round up the top five universities in South Africa, with the University of Johannesburg ranked sixth (See table below)

By the way, none of our universities are in the bottom 10 000

The only change in the local university rankings for 2021/22 is the University of the Free State overtaking the University of the Western Cape to be ranked eighth – having been ranked ninth last year.

But is this cause for celebration?


South Africa’s universities continue to decline in the rankings, with all but three local institutes dropping down the list. This follows the trend seen in 2020, where only two universities managed to climb the rankings.

The concern is that South Africa is struggling to compete against rivals worldwide mainly because of lack of funding particularly for research performance (40%), we continue to hold our own on the other three measures : quality of education (25%), alumni employment (25%), quality of faculty (10%).

021 Rank 2020 Rank University 2021 Score (2020)
269 268 University of Cape Town 77.3 (77.3)
292 275 University of Witwatersrand 76.9 (77.2)
435 429 Stellenbosch University 74.9 (75.0)
483 477 University of KwaZulu-Natal 74.3 (74.4)
580 578 University of Pretoria 73.3 (73.4)
674 706 University of Johannesburg 72.5 (72.3)
924 922 North-West University 70.7 (70.8)
1163 1200 University of the Free State 69.3 (69.2)
1239 1158 University of the Western Cape 68.9 (69.4)
1313 1295 Rhodes University 68.5 (68.7)
1416 1409 Unisa 68.1 (68.2)
1631 1655 Nelson Mandela University 67.1 (67.1)
1950 1936 Tshwane University of Technology 65.9 (66.0)


The main reason for the decline is research performance, is intensified global competition from well-funded institutions. In the global 2000 list, four universities from South Africa rank better than last year in research performance, with nine ranking lower.

Regionally, South African universities occupy the top four positions on the continent, ahead of Cairo University. Among Africa’s top 10 institutions, seven are from South Africa, two from Egypt, and one from Uganda.

Nationally, the University of Cape Town ranks first in quality of education, ahead of the University of the Witwatersrand and Rhodes University.

On the alumni employment indicator, the University of the Witwatersrand leads the country and ranks 98th worldwide, followed by Stellenbosch University and the University of Cape Town.

As for research performance, the top universities in South Africa are the University of Cape Town, the University of the Witwatersrand, and Stellenbosch University.

Commenting on the national picture, Dr Nadim Mahassen, the president of the Center for World University Rankings, said: “It is encouraging to see 13 institutions from South Africa among the world’s best.  “However, the broader story for the country is more concerning, with three-quarters of its universities falling down the standings due to declining research performance and intensified global competition from well-funded institutions.

State Investment

Dr. Nadim Mahassen concludes “To compete globally, the government needs to invest more in public universities. This will enable them to improve both research productivity and research quality by producing more research articles in high-quality journals, which will naturally lead to more citations within the academic community. High-quality research is crucial not only to university rankings, but also to the advancement of South African society.”


This is a typical “good news/bad news” story, and let me just add that university rankings are very controversial, particularly amongst University staff who argue that they are superficial in that they don’t take account of the challenges facing the developing world in respect of university education. South Africa is a case in point, the diversity/inclusivity/fee paying challenges we have are as significant as they are different from those in the developed world!

Source: Center for World University Rankings (CWUR) a link to the full results at https://cwur.org/2021-22.php