• The University of Witwatersrand tied for first place in the industry income pillar of the Times Higher Education’s university rankings.
  • The University of Cape Town is the best university overall in South Africa, followed by Wits, Stellenbosch University, the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and the University of Johannesburg.
  • South Africa’s universities and its research system are cash-strapped, and Wits is eyeing industry money to make up the government declines.

Johannesburg’s Wits University once again tied for first place in the world in the Times Higher Education university rankings’ industry income pillar. It is the only South African university in the top 50 in this pillar, according to the latest rankings.

The University of Cape Town (UCT) climbed 17 places to 156th in the world overall, making it the top university in Africa.

Wits is in the top 250 universities globally. Stellenbosch University, the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and the University of Johannesburg are the other South African institutions in the country’s top five.

See also: Wits is the top university among SA multi-millionaires – but UCT is hot on its heels

The rankings are considered among the most important measurements of universities relative to each other in the world. They are determined based on an institution's performance in five areas: teaching, research, citations, industry income, and international outlook.

“The notable improved score in the research area confirms UCT as a research-intensive institution whose cutting-edge research makes a distinctive contribution to both the local and global knowledge pools and produces solutions to challenges facing our continent and our world,” said Gerda Kruger, UCT's executive director of communications and marketing.

The university ranked 60th in terms of the industry income pillar. 

The industry income pillar measures the proportion of income that a university gets from industry relative to the academic staff it employs. “A university’s ability to help industry with innovations, inventions and consultancy has become a core mission of the contemporary global academy,” the rankings explain in their methodology.

South Africa’s cash-strapped universities have been struggling with reduced government allocations, violent protests, and static student fees. Universities have three revenue streams: government allocation, student fees, and industry income. Its research system is also feeling the squeeze, which its main research funder, the National Research Foundation, feeling the squeeze.

The new white paper on science and technology, which is currently open for public comment, pushes for increased business involvement in research and the country’s innovation system.

Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of Wits University, says that the university’s third-stream income is “very very high”.

“We think we should grow this, particularly within the research-intensive universities.”

This is particularly true in the current financial environment, where the state is not able to provide the necessary money.

However, Habib is working to diversify the sources of his institution’s industry funding. He is concerned about Wits’ dependence on foreign funding, such as international health-science grants and vaccine development programmes.

“Still too much of our resources are generated from outside,” he says.

The rise of nationalism in the United States and Europe could be be problematic for South African research universities dependent on their money, Habib says. “That puts the research reach of [our] region at huge risk – not just Wits, [the University of Cape Town], and Stellenbosch [University], but all of us collectively. The continent will lose out.”

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