South Africa an important regional hub for international students

Known worldwide as the Rainbow Nation, South Africa is emerging as an important regional hub for international students. However, domestic demand for university education – coupled with financial pressures and low student completion rates – is straining the country’s higher education system and leaving many South African students without sufficient education or skills to enter the labour market. This does not bode well for any alleviation of South Africa’s unemployment rate, which hovers around 25% and which is particularly hard on the country’s youth.

In today’s post, ICEF Monitor looks at South Africa’s rise as a destination country for international students as well as current issues in its higher education system.

Why South Africa?

In 2011, more than 68,000 international students were enrolled in South African universities, and of those, nearly 40,000 studied on-campus while the rest were distance education students. As noted in a Science Guide article published earlier this year:

“The quality of education and research distinguishes South Africa from other African countries. Especially the level of public universities goes unrivaled.”

This is just one of the reasons behind South Africa’s increased popularity with international university students. Other factors include its affordable standard of living, relatively straightforward visa processes, and distance learning offerings, including MOOCs.

South Africa’s appeal also extends to its English language travel industry, which in 2013 experienced strong growth in EFL enrolment, as compared to 2012 and 2011. However, providers still struggle to promote South Africa as a viable and safe study destination and are calling for more government support and broader accreditation initiatives.

A regional hub, and more

South Africa is an increasingly popular destination of choice for Africa’s mobile students. The French government’s 2013 report on La mobilité des étudiants d’Afrique sub-saharienne et du Maghreb found that:

“Of the 380,376 African students electing to study abroad in 2010 (representing roughly 10% of the world’s international students), 29.2% went to France, allowing France to retain its position as the #1 destination for African international students.

However, South Africa, the #2 destination, has been gaining in market share relative to France since the last time the study was conducted. Its share of 15% of African students represents an increase of 28.8% since 2006, versus France’s decrease of 1% in that time.”

In the last decade, South Africa has emerged as the African continent’s main hub for English-speaking students, and it is especially popular with students from Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, and Lesotho.

And South Africa’s universities are actively recruiting international students. The University of the Witwatersrand, for example, has launched a strategy to increase the number of international graduate students to 18% of the total student body. It is targeting students in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), as well as those in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and other African nations.

As part of its efforts to attract top African graduate students, Witwatersrand is offering affordable accommodation, a special fund to support international students, better service delivery from its international office, and a “fee rebate system,” which would see fees refunded if a degree is obtained within the minimum time. Perhaps most importantly, it is also reviewing its financial aid system and has set aside R90 million (US $8.7 million) for graduate bursaries.

South Africa is also attracting students from overseas. It is one of the world’s top 20 destinations for students from the US. The number of American students studying in South Africa increased by 4.7% between 2010/11 and 2011/12.

Work to be done regarding international student integration

South Africa may be courting international students, but some reports claim it could do better at integrating them well once they are enrolled at university. Conceptual research undertaken by the University of Witwatersrand’s Dr Yasmine Dominguez-Whitehead and Nevensha Sing found that:

“South African universities typically did not provide sufficient support for international students and were trapped by a discriminatory policy that differentiated between African students and those from the rest of the world… ”

Indeed, the researchers found that “non-academic challenges” – like prejudice, discrimination, homesickness, and financial assistance – were not receiving adequate attention.

Domestic demand, funding pressures, and low completion rates

Internationalisation aside, the most pressing issue for South Africa’s higher education system is the domestic demand for a university education – and the lack of capacity, particularly in first-year programming, to meet it. Of the 377,000 South African Grade 12 students who qualified for university education in 2012, only about 128,000, or 34%, will gain admission to a university.

In the weeks leading up to this year’s application deadlines for first-year entrants, the number of applications received by many of South Africa’s major universities far exceeded the available spaces. The University of the Witwatersrand, for example, received more than 34,000 first-year applications for 5,500 spaces, and the University of Johannesburg got about 40,000 applications for 10,800 spaces.

The findings from International Research on the Effectiveness of Widening Participation suggest that South Africa’s financial aid scheme is also unable to keep up with demand. As reported in University World News, the research found that:

“In most countries income support and/or student loan schemes are available to all on a means-tested basis. South Africa was a notable exception, where National Student Financial Aid Scheme funding was insufficient to award state loans to all applicants who potentially qualified for assistance.”

An article by Sheri Hamilton in the Mail & Guardian similarly noted that overall funding has not kept up with the rising costs of provision, despite large injections of funds into the education system.

This has compelled institutions to increase students’ fees, and has impacted hiring and the student-lecturer ratio. For example, temporary staff at South African universities increased by 40% between 2005 and 2010; whereas permanent staff increased by 10%. The student-lecturer ratio increased from 24:1 in 2005 to 28:1 in 2010, well above the state’s recommended ratio of 20:1. According to Hamilton, this means “poor service” for South Africa’s first-year students.

Moreover, the living conditions students face while studying at the post-secondary level in South Africa can sometimes be so sub-par that they are being cited as a reason for the country’s low post-secondary education completion rates. The first annual statistical report published by South Africa’s Department of Higher Education and Training found that only 15% of undergraduates in South Africa’s 23 public universities graduate. The rate is 20% for master’s students and 12% for doctoral students.

Nicolene Murdoch, the executive director for teaching and quality at Monash South Africa, and the president of the Southern African Association for Institutional Research (SAAIR), has noted that inadequate support from universities, as well as a lack of academic preparedness, adjusting to university life, student accommodation, financial constraints, and even hunger, are some of the reasons behind the low completion rates at South African universities.

Also at play in the depressing rate of completion is a post-apartheid racial legacy: research findings released this summer from the country’s Council on Higher Education show that just “one in 20 black South Africans succeeds in higher education, with more than half dropping out before completing their degree.” Meanwhile, white students’ completion rates were found to be 50% higher.

On the horizon

Part of South Africa’s problems at the post-secondary level – namely capacity, funding inadequacies, and low completion rates – stem from educational reforms made in the mid-1990s that stopped the development of a private higher education system.

These reforms put an end to polytechnics and structurally, they lumped further education and training (FET) colleges into the provincial school system. University World News points out that this means “the only real post-matric [i.e., post K-12] further education opportunity is a university.”

But as we have noted, access to universities is hugely limited:

“The reality is that a quarter of a million qualified school-leavers did not make it into a university in 2013 and are, instead, in a frenzy in the higher education marketplace. This is an appalling waste of talent and a shocking return on investment by families and the state.”

Strengthening the FET sector and providing it a new definition – one that recognises the huge importance of vocational skills in any economy today – would provide a whole new layer of education in South Africa, as well as access to it. Changing students’ and parents’ minds about vocational education will be difficult, however, as “technical” education was stigmatised under apartheid in a racially segregated labour market.

But already, there are signs there is political will to reinvent the FET sector. In 2012, the government announced a goal of enrolling four million students at FET colleges by 2030, and it has been steadily increasing the sector’s funding.

In light of South Africa’s capacity problems, other promising headlines report that South Africa’s first new university since 1994, the Sol Plaatje University, is currently being built and will be completed by 2015. Work is also underway on a second institution, University of Mpumalanga.



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