Guide to the top fourteen universities in South Africa
The areas of education provided by universities are generally divided into these qualifications:
- Undergraduate (generally bachelor’s degrees)
- Postgraduate (honours, masters, and doctorate degrees)
The term ‘university’ is derived from the Latin ‘universitas magistrorum et scholarium’, meaning ‘community of teachers and scholars’.
The first known universities were established in Europe in medieval times, and these centers of learning have become so widespread that they now exist in almost every major city worldwide.
University of Cape Town
The University of Cape Town (UCT) is a public research university situated in Cape Town, South Africa, and is one of the country’s national institutions. It is the second-oldest university in Africa, with origins dating back to the establishment of the South African College in 1829.
By 1918 the college had grown into a fully-fledged university, and in 1928, UCT was moved to its present site at Groote Schuur, on a site donated by Cecil John Rhodes. UCT offers degrees in a wide variety of fields, and has several campuses across the city, as well as an extensive library.
University of Fort Hare
The University of Fort Hare is a public university situated in Alice, Eastern Cape, South Africa. Historically, the university has been a key institution providing education to black Africans, offering Westernised education to students from across sub-Saharan Africa and beyond.
Many of its early graduates went on to become key figures in the independence movements and subsequent governments of several African countries. From 1959, the University of Fort Hare was subsumed by the apartheid government, but has since resumed its position as a major African institution open to the public under the post-apartheid higher education system.
University of the Free State
The University of the Free State is a public university located in Bloemfontein, the capital city of the Free State province and the judicial capital of South Africa. The university is one of the most well-renowned throughout the country, and consists of multiple campuses as well as extensive facilities for sporting, medical, and cultural activities, including politics and the creative arts.
The University of the Free State’s history dates back to 1904, when the Grey College offered its first Bachelor of Arts course. While previously an Afrikaans-only institution, today, all classes are offered in both English and Afrikaans.
University of KwaZulu-Natal
The University of KwaZulu-Natal (or UKZN for short) is one of South Africa’s largest tertiary institutions, with five campuses located across various locations throughout the KwaZulu-Natal province. The university was recently ranked fourth among tertiary institutions in South Africa.
Officially established in 2004, the university was formed through the merger between the University of Natal and the University of Durban-Westville. UKZN is made up of four colleges – the College of Agriculture, Engineering, and Science, the College of Health Sciences, the College of Humanities, and the College of Law and Management Studies, which are each made up of several schools.
University of Limpopo
The University of Limpopo is a university located in the Limpopo province of South Africa. It was first established in 2005 through the merger of the University of the North and the Medical University of South Africa (MEDUNSA). Both of these universities now form separate campuses of the University of Limpopo, near the cities of Pietersburg and Polokwane respectively.
The University of the North was established as part of the apartheid government’s education policies specifically for students of Sotho, Venda, and Tsonga ethnicity, and became a center of resistance to the apartheid regime. MEDUNSA, meanwhile, was established in 1976.
The North-West University is a relatively new tertiary institution formed through a merger of the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education and the University of the North-West (previously the University of Bophuthatswana) in 2004. Consisting of three campuses at Potchefstroom, Mahikeng, and Vanderbijlpark, the North-West University is one of the largest institutions throughout South Africa.
While the Potchefstroom campus offers mainly Afrikaans-based education, the Mahikeng campus is broader in its orientation. The Vaal Triangle campus is divided into the Faculty of Economic Sciences and Information Technology, the Faculty of Humanities, and the Faculty of Theology, as well as cricket, cycling, and rowing facilities.
University of Pretoria
The University of Pretoria (often referred to as Tuks) is a public research university located in Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa. Consisting of multiple campuses, the university was originally established in 1908 as the Pretoria campus of the Transvaal University College, which was based in Johannesburg.
It was the fourth institution of its kind in the country to be awarded university status, and was the first outside of North America to launch an MBA program. The University of Pretoria is divided into nine faculties as well as a business school, which has been ranked the top business school in Africa.
Rhodes University (often referred to simply as Rhodes for short) is a public research university located in Grahamstown, a city within the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. Rhodes is the oldest institution of its kind in the province, as well as the fifth- or sixth-oldest in the country, having been established in 1904.
Named after Cecil John Rhodes, the university was established through a grant from the Rhodes Trust, and was initially a constituent college of the University of South Africa before becoming an independent institution in 1951. Today, Rhodes is divided into six faculties and thirty departments.
University of Stellenbosch
The University of Stellenbosch is a public research university located in the town of Stellenbosch, South Africa. One of the most well-renowned institutions of its kind in the country, the university’s origins can be traced back to the Stellenbosch Gymnasium, a high school that over the course of the nineteenth century was developed first into a college and then into Stellenbosch University due to public demand for a tertiary education facility in the region.
The university has been ranked the third-best in the whole of Africa, and is among the top five hundred worldwide. Tuition is offered mainly in Afrikaans.
University of the Western Cape
The University of the Western Cape (or UWC for short) is a public university with a main campus located in Bellville, a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa. Established in 1960 under the apartheid government, UWC was originally designated an institution for coloured students only.
During the apartheid years, the university became a hotbed of struggle against discrimination, and played a key role in many historic changes. Today, UWC is highly research-focused, and boasts some of the most highly-qualified faculty in the country (with over 50% holding doctoral degrees). The university also has partnerships with other institutions in South Africa and abroad.
University of the Witwatersrand
The University of the Witwatersrand (commonly referred to as Wits for short), Johannesburg is a public research university located across multiple campuses across the northern suburbs of central Johannesburg. The university, like the city in which it is situated has strong roots in the mining industry, having originally been established as the South African School of Mines in Kimberley in 1896.
It is the third-oldest continuously-operating institution of its kind in the country. Today, Wits is divided into five academic campuses, and has also acquired key heritage sites such as the Cradle of Humankind and several national monuments.
University of Mpumalanga
The University of Mpumalanga is a public university based in the city of Mbombela, South Africa. One of the country’s newest universities, it was established in 2014, and incorporates the pre-existing campuses and facilities of three older institutions: the Lowveld College of Agriculture, the KaNyamazane hospitality school, and the Siyabuswa Education Campus.
The university came about as the result of an investigation into the feasibility of establishing new universities in areas such as Mpumalanga where there was growing demand for accessible tertiary education. Currently, the institution offers Bachelor of Education and Bachelor of Agriculture degrees, as well as a Diploma in Hospitality Management.
Sol Plaatje University
The Sol Plaatje University, formerly known as the University of the Northern Cape, is a public university situated in Kimberley, South Africa. Established in 2014, the university is still increasing its student intake from an initial class of just 135.
At the time of its establishment, it was the first institution of its kind to be launched since 1994, and is therefore highly symbolic of the new South Africa’s approach to tertiary education. The university is named after Solomon Tshekishe Plaatje, the first General Secretary of the South African Native National Congress (the organisation that would later become the ANC).
Monash South Africa is a private university based in Johannesburg. The institution offers undergraduate courses in that are divided into four schools: the School of Business and Economics, the School of Health Sciences, the School of Information Technology, and the School of Social Sciences, each of which offer several degrees in related fields.
A number of Honours and Masters degrees are also available through Monash, as are some short courses. Monash is part of a global family of private universities that operate under the same name, which were first established in Australia. The South African campus was established in 2001.