Private higher education – Competitive or complementary?

The instability of the South Africa tertiary education sector, due largely to the student-led #FeesMustFall protest movement as well as quality issues, has seen the role of private universities thrown into stark relief, dubbed either, as one commentator put it, “an escape hatch for the very rich” or competition out to steal students from public institutions.

“The idea there will be a mass exodus from public universities after #FeesMustFall is just not true,” said Alwyn Louw, academic president of private university Monash South Africa. “It would be impossible for us to compete with public university education. The demand is so high there is room for everyone.”

The private tertiary education sector in South Africa includes the likes of Monash South Africa (an independent offshoot from its Australian parent) and St Augustine College, both in Johannesburg, and the Pearson Institute of Higher Education which has campuses dotted around the country.

Louw’s view of student demand is confirmed by the statistics: between 2009 and 2016 the number of university-eligible graduates increased from 100,000 to more than 160,000, an increase of 60%, but university enrolment expanded from about 5% to only 10%. In 2016 only 20% of matric graduates were able to register at South Africa’s 24 public universities.

“These figures show a need for thousands of places in tertiary education and with limited places available in government institutions there is a need for private education,” said Sharad Mehra, Monash South Africa CEO.

Not a ‘competitive arena’

Mehra does not see higher education as a competitive arena. “We support public education. There is a need for it and we need to work together, not compete.”

Mehra advocates partnerships with public institutions: “This keeps the overall cost of education down and that’s important. It’s difficult for the government to open more public universities so we can complement the sector; it’s a case of coexistence and collaboration.”

According to Nhlanhla Thwala, managing director of the CTI Education Group and acting academic director of the Pearson Institute, writing in the Mail and Guardian, increasing student numbers have put stress on the system. “One consequence of this growth is that we have probably reached the outer limits of the possibilities of state-funded tertiary education – and that’s before we attempt to deliver free university for all.”

The Department of Higher Education and Training, or DHET, regulates the operation of the South African higher education sector, both public and private, in terms of the Higher Education Act of 1997(Act No 101 of 1997) and the Regulations for the Registration of Private Higher Education Institutions of 2016.


In the 1990s, post the unbanning of the African National Congress and the end of apartheid, foreign universities and local entities set up shop resulting in an unregulated free-for-all, making stringent accreditation and registration procedures a necessity.

Aside from this formal regulatory relationship, according to DHET spokesperson Madikwe Mabotha, “the department considers the private higher education sector a partner that complements the public sector in the delivery of post-school education in South Africa”.

However, private tertiary institutions in South Africa, despite having all the trappings associated with universities – such as residential campuses, libraries and computer facilities – are not allowed to call themselves universities although it is hoped proposed amendments to the Education Act will change this situation.

However, there remains an ambivalence towards the private sector on the part of government, likely influenced by its historically socialist leanings. According to Mabotha, the Department of Higher Education and Training sees private tertiary education as “largely profit-driven” and to be regulated accordingly.

“The private higher education sector does not consider higher education a public good and will therefore not voluntarily align its institutional goals to the social mission of government.”

A unique model

As private sector institutions go, St Augustine College is somewhat different to Monash and Pearson in that it is a not-for-profit institution, plus it’s Catholic, though open to members of all religions or none, as exemplified by the staff and student body.

“It mirrors the Catholic heritage,” said Professor Raphael de Kadt, head of undergraduate studies. “The Catholic intellectual tradition is holistic and determinedly interdisciplinary, bringing subjects into contact with one another.

"It’s no accident that some of the great world universities, such as Louvain in Belgium, and Notre Dame in the United States, are Catholic.”

While private secondary education, Catholic or not, has long been a highly regarded part of the education landscape in South Africa, private tertiary education is another matter and the sector still has to earn its spurs.

“The acceptance of secondary private education is high,” said Mehra. “But with tertiary the perception is one of uncertainty. Public universities have legacies – and alumni – running into decades. At the moment we have no track record.”

Institutions such as Monash are busy building up their reputation based on what makes them stand out from public universities. “We offer more personalised teaching,” said Mehra. “While there are large classes, as elsewhere, we also offer personal tutorials. Not everyone learns at the same pace and the same way. We accommodate that.”

Focus on employability

“We also have a large focus on employability and maintain a strong dialogue with industry in terms of pedagogy and courses. We have just opened an industry engagement office.

“But the student outcome is the most important thing,” said Mehra. “We enable our students to understand the world around them, to have empathy and a sense of community, to be good citizens of the world; it’s not just about grades. We see ourselves closer to the traditional model of a university.”

According to Louw the Monash learning environment contains the right balance: “Academic, social and psychological – our students are better prepared for society and the world of work. And because we are smaller that makes us more flexible and nimble so we can respond faster to student needs.”

At St Augustine the emphasis is on teaching small groups of students. “We get to know the students and they get to know us,” said De Kadt. “Given the vagaries and variants of the South African school system students need more time in classrooms than less.”

“We are a quiet tranquil learning space – that gives us a comparative advantage, though it’s not for everybody.”

Duty of care

“We also have a duty of care towards students and we get performances out of median and sub-median students that just wouldn’t happen in big universities; many of them would be those who would otherwise fall through the cracks.”

But those statistics still loom large. Can South Africa’s tertiary education, private and public, together or not, meet the demand?

“The private higher education sector is very small in size compared to the public higher education sector and will not be able to absorb the demand or provide a wholesale alternative to public universities,” said the department’s Mabotha.

But Monash is here to stay, said Louw: “We want to make a contribution to society. To move from output to impact.

“The role of private higher education in tertiary education is as a key strategic role player. If South Africa is to achieve the development goals of 500,000 students by 2030 we simply do not have sufficient public universities.”