SOUTH AFRICA: Private higher education stabilises

Foreign universities flooded into newly democratic South Africa in their scores during the 1990s but most pulled out after being confronted by rigorous accreditation and registration processes, leaving the small but influential and increasingly stable private tertiary sector dominated by local groups. Today, 92 private higher education institutions operate legally in South Africa, according to the latest register of institutions just published by the Department of Education, including 81 fully registered and 11 with provisional status.

Among the big foreign universities that have withdrawn are Australian-affiliated Bond South Africa, which has been de-registered, and Britain's De Montfort, which has requested that its registration be discontinued. Two of only a handful of foreign-linked institutions remaining are Australia's Monash South Africa (see "Monash slowly recovers investment"), which offers a range of programmes to postgraduate level, and Henley Management College from the UK, which runs an MBA.

Although there are far more private than public higher education institutions - there are only 23 public universities - the private sector is dwarfed in terms of student numbers. But private universities and colleges play a key role in providing higher education across the country and most offer advanced certificates and diplomas with a vocational focus, responding to high demand for market-oriented qualifications to produce graduates with drastically needed skills.

"There is room for private higher education, but quality and regulation are very important," says Dr Glenda Kruss, chief research specialist in the education, science and skills development programme of the Human Sciences Research Council.

This is especially so because many private colleges of poor quality were catering for disadvantaged students, taking the little money people had and delivering very little - if anything - in return.

"A trend seems to be fewer but bigger private institutions which is not necessarily a problem as one of the criteria for registration is financial viability," Kruss adds.

This is the key, helping to avoid institutions going belly-up, wasting student money and leaving them stranded mid-study. One example of this trend, reflected in the new Register of Private Higher Education Institutions, is the multi-campus Independent Institute of Education which now incorporates several 'privates' such as Varsity College.

Political reforms from the 1990s prompted a boom in private higher education in South Africa, with local and foreign institutions and entrepreneurs spotting a potentially lucrative market. Demand for tertiary education was growing, as was interest in globally recognised qualifications as the previously isolated country rejoined the world community. Also, middle-class parents were increasingly concerned about sending their children to the then volatile campuses of public universities, as well as a possible lowering of standards when the public sector opened its doors to disadvantaged (black) students.

Foreign institutions that poured into the country from around the world, especially from Europe, either started small branch campuses or forged partnerships with local institutions. Most 'cherry picked' courses that are popular and lucrative - MBAs, management, media, computing and so on. A number of solid local 'privates' had been operating at the post-school level for many years but, during the 1990s, they were joined by hundreds of new local operators, many offering courses and qualifications of dubious quality.

The government and the public sector were alarmed for a number of reasons. One was fear that private providers would attract students away from public universities in the areas where they could generate some income, undermining sources for already cash-strapped universities and threatening the future of a strong sector built up over decades.

It was also clear that many foreign and new local institutions offered below-standard facilities, staff and resources such as libraries and laboratories, and were not great value for money. Foreign institutions also offered some 'inappropriate' courses: an MBA from a European university would be based on knowledge of little relevance to graduates operating in the South African economy. And many fly-by-night colleges operated at the lower end of a big market for poor people that were straight rip-offs.

But counter arguments have been raised. Based on research that included case studies of 15 'privates', Glenda Kruss identified two distinct sub-sectors that attracted specific student bases - one catering for a privileged constituency interested in 'mobility', and another meeting demand for vocationally oriented, mostly non-degree higher education.

"Some are very good, and have helped to fill gaps left by the linking of further education and training to school-level education and by new universities of technology [old polytechnics] drifting away from certificates and diplomas increasingly towards degree-level qualifications," she says.

The private higher education boom took the country by surprise and there was no framework in place to register, accredit or quality-assure the sector. So the Department of Education set about constructing one, through the Higher Education Act of 1997 and Regulations for the Registration of Private Higher Education Institutions, gazetted in 2002.

The legislative changes created registration, accreditation and quality systems for private institutions. At the global level, South Africa put up a fight against the inclusion of education in the services section of the World Trade Organization's General Agreement in Trade and Services, concerned that it would force the scrapping of its new private sector regulations and systems and open developing countries up to predatory activities by rich world universities.

While the new obligations forced on private institutions were reasonable they were also onerous. All institutions granted registration have to obtain initial accreditation from the South African Qualifications Authority, which operates the National Qualifications Framework. Further accreditation is then required from the Council on Higher Education, followed by registration with the Department of Education.

Up to 2007, 443 institutions had lodged applications for registration as 'privates' but only 144 were either provisionally or fully registered. Many more institutions just folded.

The 2008 Register of Private Higher Education Institutions lists 81 registered institutions, all but a few of them South African. Most offer advanced certificates and diplomas in fields such as theology, information technology and computing, commerce and management, media, and alternative therapies.

A number of bigger institutions offer a range of degree and postgraduate qualifications, such as Monash South Africa and the home-brewed Independent Institute of Education Damelin and Midrand Graduate Institute, as well as major providers of advanced certificates and diplomas such as Lyceum College and City Varsity.

Another 11 institutions have provisional registration and are believed able to fulfil all requirements for registration within the stipulated period, while 48 have been de-registered and five have asked for their registration to be ended.

The full register is on the Department of Education site: