The University of Cape Town (UCT) continues to rank first in South Africa and on the continent, although this is the second year of a drop in places in the overall Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) Rankings.
This downward movement does not, however, mean that the quality of research or teaching have declined. In fact, much of the raw data shows continued improvement in performance.
UCT has moved down by 50 places in the last two years. The university believes a big drop of 30 places in 2014 can largely be attributed to the change in the QS rankings methodology for citations. This indicator accounts for 20% of the overall score, and measures the number of times a piece of research is cited, or referred to, within another piece of research – generally, the more often a piece of research is cited, the more influential it is.
In 2014, QS equalised citations across all five faculty areas to try to better represent institutions that are strong in the arts, humanities and social sciences. This continues to hit institutions such as UCT, which are very strong in life, natural and health sciences, hard. UCT’s ‘citations per faculty’ indicator fell 133 places in 2014 and a further 14 places in 2016. Yet the raw number of citations has seen a significant increase – 31% in the last year – as has the number of papers (16%).
By contrast, institutions that publish mainly in the humanities and social sciences, such as the London School of Economics (LSE), have seen a rise in rankings (the LSE rose from 71 to 35 with the change in methodology).
Even in areas where the methodology has not changed, the university notes that a drop in places does not necessarily translate into a drop in performance, because rankings are relative. For instance, the numbers of international staff and students at UCT have increased slightly (by nearly 3% and 9% respectively), but it has dropped more than 10 places in both areas. This means that other universities worldwide are increasing their proportions of international staff and students more than local universities are. UCT has capped the percentage of international students at 20% in order to reserve 80% of the places for South Africans.
The academic reputation indicator (accounting for a full 40% of the overall score), based on a global survey, reveals that UCT’s international reputation among leading academics remains steady, with a small drop of three places.