SOUTH AFRICA: Monash slowly recovers investment

Seven years after Monash University became the first from around the world to gain registration to operate as a private higher education institution in South Africa, its ambitious goal of establishing a profitable campus in Johannesburg appears to be nearing success. Australia's largest university has so far invested nearly $40 million (US$38 million) in establishing Monash South Africa - but it could be another five years before it recovers all the money it has outlaid.

The South African campus was the brain-child of former Monash vice-chancellor, David Robinson, who was forced to resign over a plagiarism scandal in 2002. It was to be one of a dozen or more that Robinson had planned to establish on every continent but it turned out to be the last big off-shore venture by the Melbourne-based university.

Early projections for the development of the campus at Roodeport - a rapidly growing suburb some 20 kilometres from the Johannesburg city centre - were wildly optimistic. The original prediction was 300 initial enrolments when only 25 students actually turned up and, even three years after it opened, the university still had fewer than 500 enrolled.

The student and fee forecasts were based on market research of South African perceptions of foreign education providers, university and course choices, campus facilities and location, fee levels and sources of funding. The marketing plan admitted that Monash's profile in South Africa at the time was non-existent and that the university would have to spend $500,000 over two years promoting itself.

When Robinson announced his plans to establish a new site in South Africa, Monash staff expressed concern that resources for the Australian campuses were being diverted to support his internationalisation programme. The overseas developments - apart from South Africa, Monash has a campus in Malaysia and centres at King's College in London and Prado in Italy - were intended to make money but staff doubted this would occur; especially since, as the South African campus was opening, the university was imposing further cuts on staffing and course closures were occurring in Melbourne.

Staff scepticism about the venture has never entirely evaporated and Robinson's successor, Professor Richard Larkins, must have wondered how he would fill the large financial black hole he had inherited when he visited the campus for the first time in December 2003. The occasion was a graduation ceremony for the first 20 students who were to receive their degrees in arts, business and commerce, business systems and computing.

"When I first visited I was immediately impressed by the level of commitment of the staff and the gratitude of the students to Monash for being given the chance to study at [the university]," Larkins says. "I was also concerned by the relatively low student numbers and the financial challenges, and the apparent lack of support from the South African government and other universities."

Since then, though, Monash South Africa has made remarkable progress. As Larkins notes, it had 2,140 students enrolled in the first semester this year with 25 in honours programmes and 790 in the foundation - preparatory - programme, while in February another 178 students graduated.

"The spectacular growth of the campus is illustrated by the fact that in 2004 there were 450 students," he says. "The operating deficit is falling rapidly from a peak of around $12.5 million in 2003 to $4.5 million in 2007. The campus will break even in about 2011 or 2012 and the loan from Monash University in Australia will then be repaid from the surpluses.

"After that, surpluses will be reinvested in the South African campus. To date Monash has invested about $37 million in the campus with the land value having appreciated by $13 million for a net investment of $24 million, all of which will be recovered."

Larkins says Monash South Africa is building valuable links between the African continent and Australia. Branches of Monash's major research institutes will be established on the Johannesburg campus, including its international water centre, sustainability institute and accident research centre. Education and research activities will be gradually extended to include health sciences, education, science and later engineering, he says.

Monash South Africa was intended to draw students from across the African continent, and from overseas. Today, 43 nationalities are represented although most are from African countries with the majority, 1,849 in total, from South Africa and the surrounding countries of Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Swaziland, Mozambique and Lesotho.

Almost 110 students are from the East African nations of Tanzania, Kenya and Malawi, 153 are from other places spread across the continent and some 27 are from overseas countries, including Bulgaria, various Asian countries and Europe. Larkins says many of the students are supported by bursaries from their own countries, as well as from the corporate sector and from Monash itself.

There was initial hostility from the South African government and local vice-chancellors to a flood of foreign institutions that entered the country after political reforms in the 1990s; they feared competition for public universities and the 'privatisation' the foreigners represented. But onerous registration and accreditation demands on private institutions closed most, dissipating such concerns, and Larkins says relations have since markedly improved:

"I have visited a number of the universities and also met the Minister and bureaucrats from the Education Ministry. Our head of campus has very good relations with the government and the ministry as well as with other vice-chancellors and we have developed collaborative programmes with a number of them," he says.

"So after it was recognised that we were a high quality institution wishing to work collaboratively, the relationship turned around and is now very positive."