Private HE providers are ‘sitting on periphery’ of society

South Africa has not placed the same emphasis on private higher education as a driver of training and development nationally as it has done with public higher education.

The case in South Africa is “unlike some other medium-scale economies globally” and “whether this has been by design or oversight is not clear”. This is according to Dr Divya Singh, the chief academic officer at Stadio Holdings, which owns three private higher education institutions in South Africa, and Mike Thoms, a research and quality assurance consultant.

They produced a chapter, ‘Private higher education’, in the Council on Higher Education’s (CHE) report Review of Higher Education in South Africa Twenty-five Years into Democracy.

The review assessed, among other aspects, the funding of higher education as well as the transformation of staff and changes in internationalisation at the country’s 26 universities over a 25-year period.

The CHE is a statutory body that provides advice to the minister of science, technology, innovation, higher education and training.

Professor Themba Mosia, the former chairperson of the CHE, said in his foreword that such reviews “provided valuable information resources to higher education policymakers, administrators, researchers, academics, activists and other interested and-or affected parties”.

Lack of focus

In their chapter, Singh and Thoms assert that, in the early post-apartheid period, there was a lack of focus on the private higher education sector on the part of the new government.

This was probably due to the more urgent priority “to resolve the significant inequalities that characterised the public universities, and to transform the public higher education sector to be “more inclusive, effective, and efficient …”

There were media reports in the 1990s that, with the ANC government coming into power, there was a proliferation of private higher education providers, some foreign, fly-by-night institutions which took students for a ride by providing unaccredited courses.

It is believed that some of these providers preyed on white fears that the standards at universities would drop with a new government in power. This unregulated free-for-all for providers of private higher education scenario was turned on its head with the subsequent introduction of stringent registration and accreditation procedures.

Fast forward to several years later, private higher education is a “somewhat neglected” sector that, “apart from the limited regulatory framework that has been implemented, is a long way from being given the same level of consideration and attention as its public university counterpart”, argue Singh and Thoms.

The authors bemoan that the sector has not been considered a worthy stakeholder to support the national agenda and drive national development and transformation targets.

“In fact, almost no targets have been set for the sector.” Despite significant growth in private higher education provision, there is no credible management information system to enable informed decision-making on the value and contribution of the sector to the post-school education and training (PSET) system, say Singh and Thoms.

‘Us-and-them’ scenario persists

They refer to several policies which refer to the attainment of “a single, coordinated higher education sector”, but private providers continue to sit on the sidelines of the PSET.

“The repeated failures of the ministry to promote and manage the integration of private higher education into the broader higher education sector in a manner that optimally leverages the contribution that private providers can make again entrenches the unfavourable orientation of the ‘us-and-them’ scenario,” argue Singh and Thoms.

Despite a statement by the then department of education (2001), that “the burgeoning private higher education sector requires more stringent regulation to ensure that it complements the public sector and contributes to the overall human resource needs of the country”, they point out that the National Plan for Higher Education at the time sets no targets for enrolments by knowledge fields for the private sector, “nor has there been any regulatory influence in this regard”.

For the authors, it is debatable whether the national targets set for the public sector may be applied on an equal footing with private higher education, given the funding and subsidy disparities.

“It is a fact that, without any support from the government, the extensive capital investment required for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, is simply not affordable for most private higher education providers, whether for-profit or not-for-profit.”

In South Africa, private higher education institutions do not receive financial support in the form of subsidies or incentives from the government.

“Furthermore, students at private institutions are not eligible for any financial aid from NSFAS [the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, the government’s bursary scheme for students in financial need], even if they meet the minimum criteria for support.”

The authors indicate that some private institutions have introduced their own forms of financial aid and bursary schemes for deserving students, but not on the scale available to students entering public universities.

Public universities receive their funding from government subsidies, including NSFAS funding, fee income and third-stream income consisting of endowments, research contracts and profit from short learning programmes.

“In private institutions, third-stream income is negligible, especially for the smaller institutions, while first-stream income or government subsidies do not exist,” say Singh and Thoms.

Private higher education must provide all the services involved with their academic activities through tuition fee income.

“Intuitively, this should result in materially higher tuition fees than would be the case with public universities, adding credence to the existing perception that private providers are only ‘in the business for the profit’,” they point out.

Competitive tuition fees

However, in the absence of individual institutional data from the private higher education sector (and based largely on anecdotal information and website comparisons), the indications are that tuition fees at 176 private institutions often compare favourably with fees at public universities.

This could be due to the acknowledgement by private higher education of the need to remain nationally competitive and to debunk the perceptions of ‘elitism’ of the sector, they assert, referring to 2020 research by Singh and Tustin titled ‘Private higher education in Africa: A South African case study gauging stakeholder perceptions and uptake’.

This results in less expenditure-intensive community engagement programmes and smaller budgets for staff research and conference attendance.

Furthermore, most private providers do not provide the same range of student support and development that is prevalent at public universities, like the development of student leadership and governance, note the authors.

Neither can much support be provided for cultural and sporting activities. “Where such opportunities are available, they are paid for by the students through additional levies.

“This limitation may, in some cases, be due to commercial reasons, which would be wholly unjustifiable. However, in other instances, it is the result of the small student enrolments, or the large numbers of working adult learners serviced by private providers through distance learning.”

Commodification vs the public good

Singh and Thoms assert that, to add fuel to the tension between public and private higher education is the idea that the commodification of higher education by the private providers compromises quality.

“It is a fact that many private higher education institutions operate with a profit motive; however, that does not automatically translate to poor quality or an inability to integrate the core values of social consciousness and the public good.”

They point out that public and private higher education institutions have been reported for bad governance practices and poor quality of programmes. However, without credible management information and deeper research, it is not possible to make definitive judgments on these matters.

“Currently, what often informs sector and public opinion are the often-untested perceptions based on anecdotal information and a historic tradition of the accepted value of the public university.”

They refer to the 2005 work of Daniel C Levy, ‘South Africa and the For-profit/Public institutional interface’ (PROPHE) in the book Private higher education: A global revolution edited by Levy and Philip Altbach.

The editors [Levy and Altbach] suggested that South Africa stands relatively unique in the developing world regarding the extent to which the two sectors “complement each other”. Furthermore, the growth of private higher education has not undermined the perceived quality of public universities, nor has there been any significant departure of the wealthy from the public to the private sector.

In terms of the racial transformation of the student body, the private higher education sector appears to have been transforming at a much faster pace during the past few years compared with the public university sector.

This may be attributed to several factors, such as the possibility that the private higher education sector is involved in a ‘catch-up’ process with the public higher education sector, which is already almost demographically representative.

Or it could mean higher numbers of black African students not being able to gain access to universities due to space limitations; or to the number of black African students qualifying for admission to higher certificate and diploma programmes that are not often part of the programme offerings at public institutions.

Singh and Thoms point out that the reaccreditation process of programmes serves as quality assurance for the sector.

The challenge for South Africa remains to provide a facilitating environment that will enable and encourage private providers to contribute in complementary ways to the national transformation agenda for higher education.