Four South African universities have made it into the top 50 of a list of the top 100 tertiary institutions in emerging economies.
On Wednesday Times Higher Education published its inaugural rankings of universities in the Brics bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and other countries such as Poland, Mexico and Egypt.
The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) was 45th.
Although China dominated the rankings, South Africa made a respectable showing, with the University of Cape Town third, Wits University 15th and Stellenbosch University 21st.
The University of Pretoria was ranked 78th.
China took 23 places in the top 100, with Peking University ranked first and Tsinghua University second.
The five countries which boasted universities in the top 10 are China, South Africa, Taiwan, Turkey and Russia.
The editor of the Times Higher Education rankings, Phil Baty, said that South Africa’s universities were trying to complete globally but were operating in a context of poverty and inequality.
He said it was often argued that these challenges were too pressing for South Africa to worry much about whether its universities were able to compete globally.
“But despite these local challenges, this ranking clearly demonstrates that South Africa’s leading research universities are competing well at the global level.”
Baty said that the production of world-class, groundbreaking research should not be the preserve of the rich and powerful.
Asked about criticisms that international rankings systems did not examine aspects important for a university in the developing world, Baty said it was important for South Africa to have universities competing “at the forefront of global knowledge transfer”.
“Allowing universities in the developing world to benchmark themselves against their closest peers, identifying key areas for improvement, is a significant motivation for Times Higher Education behind this first ranking of Brics and emerging economies.”
Earlier this year, asked about their slide down the Times Higher Education’s traditional world university rankings, certain South African universities pointed out the limitations of the rankings.
UCT said that although rankings helped it send out the message that students received a world-class education in South Africa, the rankings did not recognise the millions of rand devoted to helping needy students or community outreach programmes.
Stellenbosch University’s stance has been that it does not model its programmes and academic output to place itself in the rankings at all costs, and that “hard evidence”, such as student success rates, needed to be considered.
Baty said that China’s “utter dominance” in the rankings was testament to what could be achieved when a nation put the development of outstanding research and higher education at the heart of its economic strategy.
Speaking on being ranked 45th, UKZN’s vice-chancellor, Malegapuru Makgoba, said it was evident that his academic staff had risen to the challenge and increased their research productivity and impact.
He added that the university was the only South African university among the five that was a merged institution.
“Despite the challenges of consolidating a new culture of research excellence, a new identity and transformation, the university has excelled and will continue on this trajectory to develop into a world-class university,” Makgoba said.