Minister Blade Nzimande has welcomed the latest ranking of world universities, which records five SA universities in the top 500 in the world. File picture: Thobile Mathonsi/ANA Pictures

Pretoria - Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande has welcomed the latest academic ranking of world universities 2017, which records five South African universities in the top 500 in the world‚ saying it should be celebrated as a significant national achievement.

The five universities – the University of the Witwatersrand, the University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch University‚ the University of Johannesburg, and the University of KwaZulu-Natal – scored well in the global rankings despite the many problems that have dogged the higher education sector over the past few years, he said in a statement.

Also ranked highly in the top 800 universities in the world were the University of Pretoria, North West University, and University of South Africa.

“Bearing in mind that the academic ranking of world universities is one of the most respected global ranking systems, this strong performance and continuing solid progress by our institutions of higher education is without doubt a cause for national celebration," Nzimande said.

"This is more so given the many challenges that the higher education sector continues to grapple with, many of them inherited from the pre-democracy era, including those related to access, transformation, and funding,” he said.

It was also noteworthy that the high ranking of South Africa's public universities was happening as the latest statistics showed that more than two-thirds of students studying at the country's higher education institutions were black Africans.

“It is very pleasing that despite our country's difficult past, as well as the many challenges that continue to affect South Africa's higher education sector, commendable transformation is also taking place at our institutions of higher learning, with more students from disadvantaged backgrounds now accessing higher education,” he said.

Nzimande noted that the strong performance by local universities also came at a time that government's financial support for the higher education and training sector, via the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) student funding system, had risen by more than 600 percent for universities and 17 900 percent for further education and training colleges in the past 10 years.

Official spending figures from the department showed that total outlays via NSFAS in support of students at universities and colleges from poor and lower income families grew 12-fold from just over R1.7 billion in 2007 to R22.31 billion this financial year.

"These figures bear testimony that post-school education and training has been and continues to be an absolute focus and priority of this government," Nzimande said.

According to StatsSA data, about 766 812 students were enrolled at higher education institutions during 2016 and more than two-thirds (66.4 percent) of these were black Africans.