SOUTH AFRICA: Huge growth in foreign students

With the end of apartheid and sanctions, South African universities opened up to the world. A dozen years later foreign students comprise more than 7% of enrolments at public universities – a proportion in line with the world’s leading ‘destination’ countries – and, among US students, South Africa entered the top 20 most popular study-abroad countries.

The number of international students at South Africa’s 23 public universities has quadrupled since first democratic elections in 1994, from 12,557 to 53,733 in 2006, according to figures from the national Education Department, and about a quarter are postgraduates. By contrast, only a few thousand South Africans study abroad each year.

“South Africa welcomes international students, especially at the postgraduate level since intellectual capital is what the country needs,” says Fazela Haniff, president of the non-profit International Education Association of South Africa. “Our pool of talent is not enough to support continued economic growth and development.”

Two out of three international students, some 36,000, are from the 14-member Southern African Development Community (SADC). Zimbabwe is the major ‘source’ country, sending 18% of the international students, followed by Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland – neighbouring countries where English is commonly spoken.

But the biggest expansion in foreign student numbers has been from other African countries and from the rest of the world. Non SADC African student numbers nearly doubled in the five years to 2006, to 16% of all foreign students, or 8,569, while the number from the rest of the world swelled by more than a third, to 14% or 7,673. Europe is the biggest ‘rest of world’ supplier, followed by Asia and North America.

The dominance of SADC students is in line with factors that studies have shown influence student mobility, such as geographic region, historical connections and language. Others are the perceived quality of education and its accessibility, affordability and ‘employability’ of qualifications.

South Africa’s university sector is large and its degrees are recognised. The country also feels it has an edge in terms of diversity: “Since 1994 our universities have become good at traversing cultures and identities – perhaps we are a world leader in this,” says Patrick Fish of Higher Education South Africa, the vice-chancellors’ organisation.

Further, South Africa’s cost of living is far lower than in developed countries, as are tuition fees. But therein lies the rub. Aside from some top universities that make sufficient income from foreign students to cross-subsidise low-income courses, institutions do not make much money from internationalisation.

Indeed, says Fazella Haniff, the costs of international students are greater than the income they bring at some universities. Institutions have also had to offer language support to many foreign students – and to discourage xenophobic attitudes towards especially, and ironically, other African students.

The South African government subsidises SADC students at the same levels as local students, and regional student mobility is being encouraged through a SADC agreement that earns students the right to pay the same fees as local students across the region.

Thus universities cannot charge regional students (the majority of international students) foreign-level tuition fees. Some universities also charge home-level fees to those from the rest of Africa, and all postgraduates pay home fees.

The country sees hosting students from the rest of Africa as a way of contributing to the continent’s human resource development, and helping stem a crippling brain drain.

Many international students stay on in the country where they study, and an argument is that African students who choose South Africa as a place to study are more likely to remain on the continent than if they studied abroad. Some institutions, such as Haniff’s University of the Witwatersrand, proactively attract African students as part of a strategic plan that focuses on this country’s continental role.

The great majority of international students in South African enrol in the same courses as local students. But there has been expansion in recent years of credit-bearing semester courses aimed primarily at the American higher education market.

The latest Open Doors report, published last month by the Institute of International Education in the US, shows that South Africa has moved to number 18 among destinations preferred by American students, up 9% on the previous year, just ahead of Brazil and just behind New Zealand.

In line with figures from other ‘destination’ countries, around a third of foreign students are enrolled in distance education courses through the University of South Africa. Among contact institutions, the University of Cape Town had the highest number of foreign students while Rhodes University has the highest proportion: one in four students are foreign.

There is still growth in international students but it is slowing and there have been concerns that government limits on overall numbers might constrain further expansion. These fears have now largely been allayed, however, and guidelines are being developed that will underpin the further internationalisation of higher education.