The University is amongst South Africa's leading tertiary institutions based on research output, student pass rates and rated scientists, and is recognised internationally as an academic institution of excellence. It boasts the highest weighted research output per full-time academic staff member of all South African universities and the second-highest number of scientists in South Africa who have been rated by the National Research Foundation (NRF). It also has the highest student success rate in the country.

SU is cementing its reputation as a world-class institution. According to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, SU is one of the top 300 universities in the world, and among the top 20 in BRICS countries. It also features among the world's elite institutions in 10 of the 36 subjects featured in the QS World University Rankings by Subject for 2015. SU was also included in the 2014 CWTS Leiden Ranking, which measures the scientific performance of 750 major universities worldwide.​