An emergent regional and global student destination

South Africa is among the emerging economies playing an increasing role as providers of higher education within the region, the continent and globally. The country’s popularity as a leading destination of choice for Southern Africa and other African students makes South Africa a regional and continental hub in higher education.

The role of South Africa in contributing to human capital development in the region can be explained by its relative strengths compared to other countries in Africa and the global South.

According to the South African Department of Higher Education and Training, students from the Southern African Development Community, or SADC, region constituted just 5.5% of South Africa’s higher education enrolment but 74.3% of the country’s international students.

The top four highest senders – Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Namibia and Botswana – share direct borders with South Africa.

Regional destination rationales

Based on our survey research of international students across seven South African universities, regional cooperation efforts – which included governmental policies and financial incentives – were key drawcards for SADC students.

And for most SADC and other African students, South Africa offered quality higher education that surpassed what was available or accessible in their home countries.

There was a strong consensus among the African participants that the acquisition of international qualifications in their areas of specialisation would enhance their job mobility.

As exemplified by an international student from Malawi: “South Africa is seen as Africa’s ‘America’ as well and having a recognised degree from one of its institutions will most likely open doors around Africa when it comes to getting a job.”

Because of the quality of education they expected to receive in South Africa, the African respondents anticipated being able to secure better employment opportunities in South Africa and elsewhere upon their educational completion than if they remained at home.

An international education in South Africa was perceived as an opportunity to enhance African students’ job competitiveness.

For some Africans, regional or continental mobility was a stepping stone towards global mobility. According to a student from Cameroon, the decision was “because of this university’s education, which can help me to find a better and suitable job in Europe, Asia or the United States.”

In summary, participants believed that acquiring academic and professional qualifications by attending universities in South Africa would open prospects for more job opportunities – but these views were largely concentrated among the African respondents.

Students also had short-term economic rationales. The analysis of the open-ended survey data revealed that the economic factor can be divided by home region.

On one hand, African students mentioned affordability in terms of tuition fees and cost of living as compared to other countries in the world. For SADC students in particular, the regional agreement made tuition comparable to studying at home, thus making tuition fees more affordable for them than elsewhere.

A student from Zimbabwe explained: “It was the cheapest education of high standard my parents could afford.” For non-African students, the cost of tuition and living was relatively low, particularly in light of South Africa’s depreciating currency.

Global destination rationales

South Africa is not only a regional hub, but also an emerging global destination. Among students from Western nations, studying abroad in countries outside Europe and North America in order to experience diverse cultures has become increasingly popular.

Globally, South Africa is ranked 14th as a preferred destination for international students and is the only African country featured in the OECD higher education reporting.

The top non-African sending countries are the US and the countries of Western Europe, with the US sending most and Germany sending half of their students as non-degree-seeking students. The same holds true for some other Western European countries, including France and the Netherlands.

Our research findings revealed why South Africa is an attractive global destination, albeit for a much smaller proportion of students from outside the continent than on the continent.

Non-African students, mostly from the US and Western Europe, were drawn to the location, but often for a very different set of reasons. These students tended to be non-degree seekers or opted to study in the country after obtaining their undergraduate degrees elsewhere.

Non-Africans viewed the location as attractive, but for opposite reasons, which were related to getting away from home and experiencing a culture unlike their own.

Unlike Africans, who tended to view studying in the country as a means towards job competitiveness or seeking a quality education other than in their home countries, the non-Africans in this study were more interested in African culture and, in several cases, involved a matter of familial circumstances with family members already in the area.

International students from all regions indicated a range of social and cultural factors that motivated them to study in South Africa. For numerous students from outside the continent, their parents’ or partner’s employment influenced their decision to enrol in South Africa.

For some, studying in South Africa was more a matter of circumstances than their top ambition. A participant from the US noted: “My husband is from South Africa and we decided to stay in South Africa. I had wanted to pursue a masters in the US but those plans changed when we decided to stay in South Africa. So I did a masters here.”

Future of emerging economies?

In closing, international student mobility is hardly a unidirectional phenomenon based on a uniform set of rationales. It is also not a random assortment of individual choices.

As this study revealed, regional agreements matter and the perceived quality of an institution is relative, based on what is available at home.

It is also quite unlikely that emerging economies will become major global destinations. At best, they will serve as active regional and continental hubs, drawing students within the immediate area seeking a higher quality level of education or international exposure.

With the exception of a few very highly ranked research universities, the international role of universities in emerging economies, such as South Africa, are in regional, and sometimes continental, development.

This mission is in stark contrast to the top global destination, the US, which prepares mostly Asian students – that is, from China, Korea and India. The extent to which South African and other universities in emerging economies seek to become top global destinations is unknown, but as this study has demonstrated, this might come at the expense of their regional role.

Jenny J Lee is a Fulbright scholar and associate professor in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona in the United States. Chika Sehoole is an associate professor in the department of education management and policy studies at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.