SOUTH AFRICA: Monash switches to public purpose

A decade after Monash University in Melbourne became the first foreign university to gain registration as a private higher education institution in South Africa, its ambitious goal of establishing a profitable campus in Johannesburg has still to be achieved. Meanwhile the university has changed its approach, switching focus from being 'for-profit' to 'public purpose'.

Australia's largest university has so far invested an estimated AUD140 million (US$156 million) to create a higher education showpiece that now enrols nearly 3,200 students. That is up from 2,140 three years ago.

But suggestions that Monash South Africa will double its present student number by 2014 and clear the loan from its Melbourne parent by next year seem optimistic.

Certainly initial projections for the development of the campus at Ruimsig, a burgeoning suburb 25 kilometres north-west of the Johannesburg city centre, were wildly out. 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.

But now, having established an architecturally eye-catching campus on its 40 hectare site, Monash South Africa is intent on becoming an integral part of the nation's higher education sector.

Initiated by a former Monash vice-chancellor Professor David Robinson, who was forced to resign over a plagiarism scandal in 2002, the South African university was to be one of a dozen or more campuses that Robinson planned to set up "on every continent". It turned out to be Monash's last big off-shore venture.

Although Robinson clearly believed the South African venture would make money for his Melbourne institution - annual fees now start at R36,000 (US$4,500) - it was not long before his successors realised this was highly unlikely.

These days, instead of referring to Monash South Africa as a "private for-profit institution", the preferred term appears to be "a private university with a public purpose".

As Professor Simon Adams, then deputy pro vice-chancellor in charge of international affairs, told me during a visit to Johannesburg two years ago: "We will not repatriate funds that are generated here back to Australia but will continue to invest resources in developing the campus.

"That is different from the business model of say Bond University - Australia's first private university - which set up a campus here but pulled out of South Africa, or the other private providers whose aim was to generate income for their parent organisations."

There was hostility from the South African government and local vice-chancellors to a swarm of foreign institutions that entered the country after political reforms in the 1990s. The critics feared the competition would undermine the country's public universities. But onerous registration and accreditation demands on private institutions closed most, dissipating such concerns.

Today, according to Professor Stephanie Fahey, Monash's deputy vice-chancellor for global engagement, the South African offshoot enjoys "a constructive and valuable relationship with the South African government" and is not only subject to the Australian quality assurance agency but also to the quality assurance authority in South Africa.

"We are excited by the rapid development of the campus and look forward to broadening our range of education and research programmes that have relevance to South Africa and the African continent," Fahey told University World News.

"In time, we want to see a deepening of research relevant to African problems and opportunities. It is very important that we are responsive to issues of concern to the region and, in this regard, November last year saw the opening of the school of health sciences and its first students were enrolled in the three-year bachelor of health degree last February."

As Fahey said, health is a priority for South Africa and Africa, where additional skills are in demand. "With units such as 'global health: opportunities and challenges' and 'biological bases of health and disease', the course will offer graduates a wide range of interesting career options in the areas of public health, health management, health promotion, programmes and policy," she said.

The university continues to face many challenges. They include boosting postgraduate numbers, which will be essential if it is to achieve its aim of developing research "relevant to African problems and opportunities". Of its 3,000-plus students today, the vast majority - 97% - are undergraduates and only 3% are undertaking honours or masters degrees.

Monash South Africa has yet to become profitable. But with student numbers rising, many students from other African countries, scholarship provision, outreach work and a growing research profile, it has achieved something considerably more valuable in the eyes of South Africans - a growing reputation and a recognised role as a public good.