South Africa’s universities accounted for 19,3% of the country’s gross expenditure on research and development (R&D) in 2005/6 – or about $2,8-billion out of a total of R14,1-billion.
Of this, 16,4% was devoted to basic (or pure) science, 3,9% to information and communication technology, 1,7% to applied science, 12,1% to engineering sciences, 17,4% to the medical sciences, 13,5% to the life sciences, and 35% to the social sciences.
The country’s universities are clearly important assets. In total, South Africa has 23 institutions designated as universities, divided into 11 traditional universities, 6 comprehensive universities, and 6 universities of technology. Traditional universities are just that: full-spectrum universities with faculties of science, engineering, law, arts/humanities, and so on, engaging in pure, as well as applied, research, and teaching.
The comprehensive universities were created by the merger of some universities with technikons, and offer some traditional university programmes as well as career-orientated programmes of the type found in the former technikons. The universities of technology are basically renamed technikons (which were themselves originally designated technical colleges).
The traditional universities are North West University, Rhodes University, the University of Cape Town (UCT), the University of Fort Hare, the University of the Free State, the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKN), the University of Limpopo, the University of Pretoria (UP), the Universitty of Stellenbosch, the University of the Western Cape, and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).
The comprehensive universities are the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, the University of Johannesburg, the University of South Africa (Unisa – a distance learning institution), the University of Venda for Science and Technology, the University of Zululand, and the Walter Sisulu University for Technology and Science.
The universities of technology comprise the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, the Central University of Technology, the Durban University of Technology, the Mangosuthu Technikon, the Tshwane University of Technology, and the Vaal University of Technology.
But how do South African universities rate internationally? Global university ranking lists do exist. Two of the best known are the Times Higher Education Supplement QS World University Rankings, and the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU). These list what they regard as the 500 best universities in the world.
The ARWU 2007 rated UCT as South Africa’s top university, placing it in the group of universities ranked from 203 to 304, but not giving it an individual ranking. UCT was also rated as Africa’s top university. Wits came second, in South Africa and Africa, ranked between 305 and 402.
Third equal, in both South Africa and Africa, were UKN and UP, both rated between 403 and 510 in the world – Cairo University, in Egypt, also ranked third equal in Africa and in the same global group. These five universities were the only African universities to make the top 500 list. (In the 2006 ARWU rankings, UCT came in at 252, Wits at 396, UKN at 470, and UP at 481.)
The QS World University Rankings 2007 also placed UCT as South Africa’s top university, ranked 200, with Wits again in second place, at 282. UKN and UP were both placed in the group ranked between 401 and 500, without being assigned individual ratings.
The exact ratings differ, but both lists agree that UCT comes first and Wits second, and they are followed by UKN and UP. And the really fundamental point is that South Africa has four world-class universities. Not surprising, all are traditional universities, of which the country only has 11. So 36% of South African traditional universities are world class.
For comparison, universities ranked near UCT on the QS list include the University of Leicester (UK) at 185, the University of Surrey (UK) at 190, the University of Barcelona (Spain) at 194, Kobe University (Japan) at 197, the University of Miami (US) at 202, Brandeis University (US) at 208, and Hamburg University (Germany) at 216.
Universities clustered around Wits include the University of Essex (UK) at 272, Iowa State University (US) at 276, Washington State University (US) at 286, and the University of South Australia at 291.