Cost and quality concerns slow the growth of private HE

A lack of trust in the value of the qualifications and the quality of tuition offered by private higher education institutions is among the reasons why this sector has not grown to complement public higher education in South Africa.

Furthermore, limited knowledge of private higher education, especially among parents, and perceptions that this type of education is expensive, with low returns on investment, also contribute to stifling the growth of this sector.

This is according to a study undertaken by Dr Divya Singh, the chief academic officer at Stadio Holdings, a private higher education investment company, and Professor Deon Tustin, head of the Bureau of Market Research at the University of South Africa. Titled, ‘Stakeholder Perceptions and Uptake of Private Higher Education in South Africa’, it was published in June in the International Journal of African Higher Education.

This research was undertaken in 2017 among university students, school learners, school career counsellors, parents, employees and regulators. It aimed to “gauge stakeholder perceptions and understanding of private higher education in South Africa, acknowledging that, especially for private higher education, market perceptions are crucial, as brand and reputation directly influence its growth”, the researchers explain.

From the mid-1990s, there was a proliferation of private and foreign providers of higher education in South Africa. They offered degrees and diplomas. Some of the courses were of good quality while others were believed to be of inferior quality and were recognised neither by local nor international bodies.

In some cases, these institutions were not registered with the then Department of Education and were labelled, ‘fly-by-nights’. The government then tightened up on these institutions as some took the public for a ride.

Low participation

Referring to their study findings, Singh and Tustin say: “In 2016, only 167,408 students were registered in the 123 private higher education institutions in South Africa, a 14.6% participation rate.”

They refer to the 2018 work of Daniel Levy, who points out that, in 2010, the participation rate in private higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa was 17.8%, with a global average of 32.9%.

They also refer to a 2018 article by Ellie Bothwell, who asserts that, globally, private higher education plays a much more significant role, accommodating approximately 37.8% of enrolments in the developing world (three times higher than in South Africa) and 25.2% in developed countries (just less than double the South African participation rate).

Meanwhile, they assert that South Africa’s National Development Plan: Vision for 2030 (NDP) sets a target of 1.62 million students in higher education by 2030. They say: “In keeping with global trends, and consistent with sustained policy and planning at the national level, with ambitious targets in place, demand for higher education in South Africa has increased, with the number of students enrolled in higher education institutions increasing from 983,703 in 2010 to 1,143,245 in 2016.”

However, overall growth between 2015 and 2016 was a paltry 1%, “which does not bode well for achieving the NDP 2030 goal. Furthermore, the gap between the number of students qualifying to enter higher education and the number of places available at public universities continues to grow, emphasising the potential of the private higher education … sub-sector,” explain the authors.


From their survey, they assert: “The general opinion (except for the employer sector) was that most people would choose to study at a public university or college.”

Almost a fifth (18.2%) of the 11 school career counsellors who participated in the survey had obtained higher education qualifications from private higher education. Some of these participants were studying and intending to study in the future.

“Again, none intended to register at a South African private higher education institution. The two main reasons advanced were, firstly, a lack of information about private higher education in South Africa, and, secondly, the belief that it is too expensive.”

Overall, participants highlighted insufficient information about private higher education institutions, a perception of high tuition fees, and the lack of bursaries or other funding.

In response to the question on what would encourage them to consider private higher education, factors such as affordability and the availability of bursaries and financial support were the most cited.

A third driver that would encourage parents to consider private higher education was guaranteed employment. Overall, there were significantly higher levels of agreement among the respondents that people interested in higher education would more readily consider paying a higher price to participate in private higher education if employment were to be guaranteed.

Employer respondents raised constraints such as international accreditation or recognition, the quality of tuition and the value of the qualifications.

“Employers that responded to the survey added the need for private higher education institutions to prioritise work-integrated learning and to introduce a greater variety of courses,” said the researchers.

However, parents, regulators or industry experts and career counsellors believed that graduates from private higher education institutions had a better chance of obtaining employment than their counterparts from public universities or colleges.

Perceptions about staff

Most of the respondents (except for the school leavers) agreed that the chances of successfully completing one’s studies were higher at private higher education institutions than at a public university or college, as they expressed the belief that these institutions are “less disrupted by student protests and other activities than public universities or colleges”.

“Exacerbating the situation is the lack of state support for students studying at private higher education institutions, and the respondents’ perceptions that institutions, themselves, do not provide financial support to prospective students,” explain the researchers.

Given that most of these institutions are singularly dependent on student fee income to sustain their basic operations, it is unlikely that they will ever be able to take on this responsibility to any significant extent.

“However, there is some evidence of limited academic bursaries and partnership agreements with business and financial institutions to assist students with loans and other financial support to enable access.”

In terms of the quality of provision by private higher education, this study revealed that key stakeholders, including university students, school leavers and parents did not have confidence in the calibre and quality of teaching staff.

Regulations prohibit private higher education institutions from appointing academics to the ranks of the professoriate … “This could explain public perceptions that the quality of the academic staff and teaching at public universities is superior to that offered by private higher education institutions.” Furthermore, private higher education institutions may not refer to themselves as universities.

Private education ‘not a first choice’

Their findings reveal that private higher education is not a first choice for students and is only considered when they do not gain access to public universities.

The researchers point out that the national quality norms set by the Council on Higher Education and the South African Qualifications Authority apply equally to public and private higher education institutions.

Furthermore, public higher education institutions are required to register with the national Department of Higher Education and Training. They refer to the 2017 research of Elmarie Stander and Chaya Herman, who maintain that the management of quality assurance, especially in private higher education in South Africa, remains deficient.

They put this down to the tension between the bottom line, academic rigour and the necessary quality of service in the public higher education sub-sector.

The researchers also refer to Bothwell’s article that asserts that resource and capacity constraints undermine the national quality assurance agencies’ ability to effectively monitor and assure overall teaching and learning quality across the sector.

Furthermore, public higher education institutions do not qualify for state funding for research published in accredited publications. The consequences are that there is limited prioritisation and focus on research output among most public higher education institutions. Also, private higher education institutions are not allowed to be called ‘universities’.

To change perceptions about the sector, the researchers say that parental encouragement is “the best influencer of post-secondary educational aspiration”. However, the career counsellors’ negative views on private higher education as a destination choice (personally and generally) exacerbates this concern, given that they offer advice to prospective students.

The researchers assert that, despite the constraints and challenges in the sector, private higher education is a growing sub-sector in South Africa as well as globally.

According to Singh and Tustin, “It is, however, imperative that the issues highlighted as perceptual limitations be interrogated and addressed at both the national level and by the sub-sector if private higher education is to continue to contribute to bridging the higher education access gap and play the role that has become the norm in other developing countries.”

They stress that, if South Africa is to achieve the National Development Plan 2030 target, something radical needs to be done to increase its higher education participation rate over the next 10 years.

“Given the resource and infrastructure constraints confronting the higher education sector and the dire national fiscal forecasts post the COVID-19 pandemic, the public higher education system alone will not achieve this target.”