Study in South Africa | Top Universities

If you want to experience life in one of the most diverse and complex countries in the world, you may choose to study in South Africa. Since the 1990s, following legislation to overturn decades of enforced racial segregation, South Africa has made significant progress in developing a more democratic society, in which diversity is celebrated as a central part of national identity. There are, for example, 11 official languages (only Bolivia and India have more), and the country is nicknamed the “rainbow nation” in recognition of its unique multicultural character.

There are still many problems to be addressed in South Africa, including high rates of violent crime, poverty and HIV/AIDS. But the country excels in many areas, offering some of the world’s most striking natural scenery and wildlife, diverse and dynamic cities and towns – and a strong selection of leading universities with an international outlook.

Universities in South Africa 

University of Cape Town

The QS World University Rankings® 2019 features nine South African universities, with the highest international ranking position claimed by the University of Cape Town, at joint 200th. The next highest ranked is the University of the Witwatersrand (commonly known as Wits) at joint 381st, followed by Stellenbosch University at joint 405th.

Three more South African universities make it into the world’s top 800; these are the University of Pretoria, the University of Johannesburg, and the University of Kwazulu-Natal.

13 South African universities are featured in the QS BRICS University Rankings 2019, a ranking of the best-performing universities in the five BRICS countries. And in the QS World University Rankings by Subject, South African universities show particular strength in the field of development studies, claiming five representatives in the global top 100 for this subject, including the University of Cape Town (11th) and the University of the Witwatersrand (19th).

Public universities in South Africa are divided into three types: traditional universities, which are academic in focus; universities of technology (“technikons”), which are more vocational; and comprehensive universities, which offer a combination of both types of qualification. The Department of Higher Education and Training is responsible for tertiary education and vocational training, including Adult Basic Education and Training (ABET) centers. The nine provinces of South Africa also have their own education departments, which implement both national and local policies.

If you study in South Africa, it will usually take three years of full-time study to complete a bachelor’s degree, and one or two years to complete a master’s degree. The academic year is split into two semesters, the first from early February to early June, and the second from mid-July to late November.


Stellenbosch University

As in countries such as Australia and New Zealand, those who study in South Africa do not receive an overall grade for their bachelor’s degree with a level of honors (such as 2:1 or 1st). Instead, after their third year of study, students have the option to either graduate with a bachelor’s degree certificate or take a further one year honors course in order to get their honors certification. This is an extra postgraduate year of study in which a research thesis must be completed in the same area of study as the student’s bachelor’s degree.

You’ll find that most universities in South Africa offer multicultural student communities, good academic facilities, a range of social activities and clubs, and good support systems for international students. If you’re keen to get to know South Africa beyond the campus boundaries, many universities in South Africa also have community volunteering schemes, which provide opportunities to get involved in the development of the local area.

Compare top universities in South Africa in the world rankings

Famed for its stunning natural scenery and biodiversity, South Africa is likely to be a popular choice for students with a thirst for outdoor exploration. You may enjoy visiting the picturesque coastline of the Garden Route, trekking in the Drakensberg Mountains, taking a safari in the Kruger National Park, or exploring the wetlands and marine reserves of the eastern coast – to name just a few of the many popular natural sites the country is home to.

Meanwhile South Africa’s major cities offer lively nightlife and entertainment scenes, again with outdoor life often at the heart of local life. You can’t beat a nice relaxing braai (barbecue) with friends! South Africans are also known for their passion for sports (both playing and watching), especially football (soccer), cricket and rugby union.

Read on to find out more about student life in some of South Africa’s major cities…

Cape Town

The seat of South Africa’s national government, Cape Town is a vibrant multicultural metropolis. South Africa’s oldest city, Cape Town offers highly developed infrastructure, a cosmopolitan population and a high quality of life. Noted for its architectural heritage, in 2014 it became the first African city to take on the title of World Design Capital, in recognition of its blend of “heritage, innovation, diversity and creative talent”.

As well as claiming the highest density of Cape Dutch-style buildings in the world (most visible in Constantia and along Long Street), Cape Town also has plenty of striking modern buildings, such as the recently expanded Cape Town International Convention Centre, with numerous renovations and new projects taking place under an extensive urban renewal program.

Of course, Cape Town’s most striking features are part of the natural world. Table Mountain provides a dramatic backdrop to the city, while the rugged ridge of Cape Point forms the south-western tip of the African continent. The region also offers beaches, surfing, wildlife reserves and vineyards all within easy reach, as well as plenty of cultural opportunities, particularly for music lovers.

Alongside all of this, Cape Town is home to some of the highest-ranked universities in South Africa. Located in the heart of the city is the nation’s leading university, the University of Cape Town (joint 200th in the QS World University Rankings 2019). Just outside of the city center (called the City Bowl due to its shape) is the University of the Western Cape, located in the Bellville suburb. Slightly further inland again is Stellenbosch University, about 50km from the City Bowl. The Cape Peninsula University of Technology also has a campus in Cape Town, as well as sites in Bellville, Wellington, Granger Bay and Mowbray.


South Africa’s largest city by population and a key hub for commerce and industry, Johannesburg is one of Africa’s most developed and prosperous cities – and it’s got the skyline to prove it. While not one of South Africa’s three capital cities, Johannesburg is the seat of the Constitutional Court, which has the final word on interpretations of South Africa’s constitution. It is also the capital of the wealthiest province in South Africa, Gauteng.

The climate in Jo’burg (or ‘Jozi’) is generally moderate and pleasant year-round, and you’ll find all the facilities and activities you’d expect in a city this size – shopping, restaurants, bars and clubs, theater, music, galleries and museums, and an extensive portfolio of public art. However, new arrivals should be prepared to find modern architecture and leafy suburbs coexisting with large areas of shanty towns and squatter settlements, reflecting major disparities in wealth and living conditions.

As is the case anywhere in South Africa, stunning natural scenery is never too far away. There are plenty of nature reserves within the local area, such as the Lion Park reserve near Lanseria, the Krugersdorp Nature Reserve and Johannesburg Zoo, one of the largest in South Africa.

The highest-ranked university in Johannesburg is the University of the Witwatersrand (joint 381st in the QS World University Rankings). The city is also home to the University of Johannesburg (ranked in the 551-560 range), while Vaal University of Technology is about 70km from Johannesburg center. The University of Pretoria’s business school, the Gordon Institute of Business Science, is located in the Illovo suburb of Johannesburg.


Situated on the east coast, Durban is one of Africa’s busiest ports and the largest city in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal. It is often known as ‘surf city’ due to its impressive beachfront, called the Golden Mile. The warm waters of the Indian Ocean, year-round sunshine and its reputation as a surfer’s haven make the Mile a magnet for surfers and sunbathers alike. Its wide stretch of golden sands and promenade are security- and lifeguard-patrolled, and also protected with shark nets.

Some of South Africa’s most beautiful wildlife and nature reserves are nearby, including St Lucia, Drakensberg, Hluhluwe-Umfolozi and Mkuze. Inside Durban you’ll find the Umgeni River Bird Park, along with uShaka Marine World, which houses the world’s fifth-largest aquarium. Durban is also famous for its eye-catching Zulu rickshaw pullers, who wear huge, vibrant hats and traditional clothing.

Durban is home to one of the largest Indian populations outside of India – and some of the best Indian cooking. In general, you’ll find a wide range of cuisines available, from Italian-style cafés to local specialties such as biltong (a type of cured meat). You might like to explore the Markets of Warwick, possibly the largest informal street market in South Africa, venture into the Suncoast Casino and Entertainment World, or explore the resort’s restaurants, cinemas, beach bar and semi-private beach.

Leading universities in and around Durban include Durban University of Technology, Mangosuthu University of Technology, and the University of Kwazulu-Natal – the last of which is ranked 751-800 in the QS World University Rankings.


South Africa’s executive and de facto national capital, Pretoria is one of the country’s leading academic cities. The city’s University of South Africa (also referred to as Unisa) is the largest university in Africa. One of the world’s “mega-universities”, it offers a large range of vocational and academic programs, as well as offering distance education, thereby reaching over 300,000 students worldwide each year.

Other notable universities in Pretoria include the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), which is the largest residential higher education institution in South Africa; the University of Pretoria (ranked 561-570 in the QS World University Rankings); and the University of Limpopo, which has a campus in Ga-Rankuwa, just north of Pretoria. The city is also home to the largest research and development organization in Africa: the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

Pretoria has many museums, and is known for its love of cricket and rugby union (Pretoria hosted matches during the 1995 Rugby World Cup). Diverse cultural influences over the years are reflected in the city’s architecture, which ranges from British Colonial to Art Deco mixed with a unique South African style. Pretoria is known in South Africa as the Jacaranda City, due to the thousands of Jacaranda trees planted in its streets, parks and gardens.

Tuition fees and living costs in South Africa 

South Africa

Tuition fees at universities in South Africa vary depending on the university, study level and subject of study. You may also find fees are charged per course module, varying slightly depending on the specific classes you take. To give a rough idea of the price range, the University of Cape Town’s 2017 fees ranged from R53,440 to R64,890 (~US$3,800 – 4,600) at undergraduate level. At master’s level throughout the country, fees range from R25,000 to R70,000 (US$1,800-5,000) per year. Specialized postgraduate courses and MBAs can cost up to R410,000 (~US$29,300).

If you’re a student from a Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) member country (listed here), you’ll be eligible to pay the same tuition fees as South African students, rather than the international fee level.  

Many South African universities offer their own scholarships and bursaries for international students at various levels of study, based on academic merit and/or financial need. Details will usually be listed on the university website. Incoming students may be automatically considered or may need to submit a separate application.

Living costs are relatively cheap, especially when compared to countries such as the US or the UK. On average, you’ll need around R102,000 (~US$7,300) a year to cover accommodation, food, travel and other expenses.

Admission requirements for universities in South Africa

As is usual, admission requirements will vary depending on the university and the course you’re applying for. For specific details of the admission requirements for a particular course, visit the university website; if still unsure, contact the university directly to check your eligibility.

For a general idea of whether your qualifications are accepted by universities in South Africa, you can use the online assessment provided by Universities South Africa. If this shows that you do meet the minimum legal requirements for study in South Africa, you will then need to submit hard copies of the qualification documents to the Matriculation Board, in order to receive an official endorsement certificate (known as an “exemption”).

You will need to prove your knowledge of English or Afrikaans, depending on which language you choose to study in.

Student visas for South Africa 

Study in South Africa

If you are an international student intending to study in South Africa you must apply for a student visa. Universities in South Africa cannot register you as an international student until you have shown them a valid visa. You can apply through your nearest South African embassy, consulate or high commission. Visit the Department of Home Affairs website for more detailed information on visa costs, processing times, where to apply, what to submit, requirements for people in transit and information relating to your duration/purpose of stay, and photograph requirements.

Typically, student visas for South Africa take around six weeks to be processed. Once you have received conditional acceptance from the South African institution of your choice, you will then need to complete the temporary residence permit application form BI-1738 and submit it in person, along with the following documents, to a South African embassy or consulate in your home country:

  • Passport valid no less than 30 days after the end of your course. Your passport must have two consecutive, clear pages for entry/departure stamps.
  • Completed form BI-1738
  • Proof of payment for the visa application (R1,800/US$130)
  • Two color passport-sized photographs
  • Official letter of confirmation from your chosen South African university detailing the duration of your course, and undertaking to provide notice of registration/de-registration and course completion/extension within the allotted time period
  • Proof of necessary finances to cover tuition fees and living costs for the duration of your stay
  • Proof of medical or health insurance, and a letter confirming this will be renewed annually for the duration of your stay. Depending on where you’re traveling from, you may also need a yellow-fever vaccination certificate. South Africa is mostly malaria-free, but inoculations against hepatitis A and typhoid are recommended before travel.
  • Medical and radiological reports from within last six months
  • Details of accommodation arrangements in South Africa
  • If you’re under 18: written permission from both parents or from a sole custody parent including proof of sole custody; details of the person in South Africa who will act as your guardian, including a letter of confirmation from them
  • If you’re over 18: a police clearance certificate for every country you’ve resided in for more than 12 months since the age of 18
  • If you have children (minors) traveling with you or joining you in South Africa, you will need to provide proof of guardianship or custody or consent from the guardian.

Student visas for South Africa are valid for the duration of the course for which they are issued. As a student visa holder, you are allowed to work part-time for no more than 20 hours per week (and full-time during academic vacations). If you plan to work as part of your studies or to get work experience, you’ll need to apply for permission from the Department of Home Affairs. You’ll need to submit: an offer of practical training, consent from your educational institution in South Africa and proof that you are still a registered student.

Discover 10 things you should know before studying in South Africa

Fast Facts

  • Full name: Republic of South Africa
  • Parliamentary republic – the President is both head of state and head of government
  • International students can work up to 20 hours per week during term time (full time during semester breaks).
  • Amount needed for living costs per year: R102,000 (~US$7,300) 
  • Three capital cities: Pretoria (executive capital), Cape Town (legislative capital), Bloemfontein (judicial capital)
  • Largest city is Johannesburg (nicknames include ‘Joburg’, ‘Jozi’, ‘Joni’, ‘eGoli’ and ‘Joeys’)
  • Eleven official languages, including English, Afrikaans (based on Dutch), Xhosa, Zulu, Setswana and Sesotho. English is the language of business and administration.
  • Motto: ‘Unity in diversity’
  • Major religion: Christianity
  • Main exports: platinum, gold, diamonds, metals and minerals, cars, fruit, machinery
  • Wildlife includes zebra, cheetah, antelope, hyena, whale, shark, penguin (yes, really), flamingo, crocodile, giraffe and many more, including the ‘big five’: rhino, elephant, lion, leopard and buffalo.
  • More than 700 public nature reserves, including 19 national parks, and about 200 private reserves
  • Borders with Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho, which is an enclave, fully surrounded by South African territory
  • Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the west and the Indian Ocean on the east
  • Currency is the rand (1 rand = 100 cents)
  • Time zone: GMT+2 (UTC+2)
  • International dialing code is +27 and internet domain is .za
  • Generally temperate climate