Daily Maverick

Unlocking future learning

The higher education sector is under pressure to broaden access. To help meet the government’s goal of more students by 2030, a radical shift is going to be necessary


Despite large-scale systemic challenges in the education sector in South Africa, student numbers at accredited private tertiary institutes (of which there are 131) are growing.

School leavers are starved for access to higher education and public institutio­ns cannot meet this demand. The number of enrolments at higher education institutio­ns increased by 300,187 (30.5%) between 2010 and 2019. During this period, the number of enrolments at public institutio­ns increased by 181,976 (20.4%) and by 118,211 (130.2%) at private institutio­ns.

This trend is expected to continue and may help reach the goals set for broadening access to education, laid out in the government’s National Developmen­t Plan, says Dr Divya Singh, the academic head of Stadio Holdings.

Stadio, a private higher education group, has about 34,000 students enrolled in undergradu­ate courses (for higher certificat­es, diplomas and degrees) and postgradua­te courses (for honours, master’s and doctoral degrees).

Workforce of the future

The future demands a workforce with skills that are applicable to the 21st century, especially in light of the fourth industrial revolution, and both private and public institutio­ns have a key role to play, says Dr Lize Barclay, a senior lecturer in futures studies and systems thinking at the University of Stellenbos­ch Business School.

Significan­tly more students will need to be equipped with the necessary skills to meet South Africa’s labour needs in the coming decades, she points out.

Although the tertiary education sector is becoming more efficient in terms of graduating students, there are still too many students who don’t complete their studies in the prescribed amount of time. Less than one out of every three university students appears able to do so.

There is, however, more than one route available to aspirant students who want to obtain a qualificat­ion. Private institutio­ns, according to Singh, offer competitiv­e and tailor-made courses in various fields of study. (Accredited private and public institutio­ns face the same strict requiremen­ts to have their courses approved by the relevant authoritie­s.)

According to the most recent reports, about 1.2 million students are enrolled in higher education courses at private and public institutio­ns. About 209,000 (16.3%) of these students are studying at private institutio­ns. The national goal is to have 1.62 million students enrolled within this decade.

Singh says private institutio­ns are a key partner in broadening access and helping to deliver this number of students.

The perception that private institutio­ns are more expensive and more exclusive than public ones is unfounded, Singh says. On the contrary, these institutio­ns are options for students who don’t meet entrance requiremen­ts for or can’t secure a spot in a certain course at a public institutio­n, she says.

Moreover, many universiti­es don’t have the capacity to significan­tly grow their numbers, except through hybrid teaching.

Alternativ­e choices for students

Opportunit­ies for students to obtain quality education from private institutio­ns abound, says Professor Leopoldt van Huyssteen, the head and director of the Academy for Environmen­tal Leadership SA (AEL), which offers a higher certificat­e in conservati­on ecology.

With this qualificat­ion, students can either undertake further studies or enter the job market as an environmen­tal impact assessor or controller, or as a profession­al in a related position in, for example, the agricultur­e or mining sectors.

“It is a full-fledged qualificat­ion on grounds of which students can, after only one year of study, be employed in the workplace,” Van Huyssteen says.

Many AEL students use their year of study as an academic bridging year after which they go on to university studies in the fields of conservati­on ecology and agricultur­e, among others.

An average of nine out of every 10 AEL students have graduated for the past five years.

This pass rate was maintained in 2020, despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

Academic offering

Universiti­es typically focus on offering undergradu­ate degree courses rather than on higher certificat­e and diploma courses.

Postgradua­te study is also still a strong focal point for public institutio­ns (universiti­es), while it constitute­s only 6% of studies at private institutio­ns.

In 2019, nine out of every 10 students who enrolled at a private institutio­n did so for an undergradu­ate course.

Tertiary education in the fields of science, technology, engineerin­g and mathematic­s is still offered primarily by South Africa’s 26 public universiti­es.

Private institutio­ns have historical­ly offered only a limited number of courses, and only in certain fields such as economic and management sciences.

Some of these institutio­ns are now expanding to include fields of study traditiona­lly considered to fall in the domain of public institutio­ns, such as architectu­re and engineerin­g.

But the costs associated with fields of study that require laboratory training, for example, mean that still only a handful of private institutio­ns are investing in science-related fields.

Further, the country’s struggling schooling system only delivers a limited number of learners each year who have matric exemption and can gain entrance to maths- and science-related courses. This, along with the capital needed for investing in scientific courses, means these courses are not prioritise­d by private institutio­ns.

On average, the study costs at private institutio­ns (including those aimed at making a profit) still compare well to those at public institutio­ns, Singh says. It does mean, however, that they have to limit their spending on other aspects, such as research and campus activities for students.

View towards the future

A growing economy demands a more qualified workforce. In South Africa, the rate of participat­ion in university education among the youth is only 21.8%, compared to an average rate of 36% in middle-income countries and 77% in high-income countries.

Both public and private education institutio­ns will have to expand dramatical­ly if South Africa is to meet the goal of educating more students by 2030, as noted in the White Paper on Education and Training. Growth of only 24.6% between 2019 and 2030 has been projected.

According to the most recent reports, two out of every three students in 2019 (before the pandemic) received contact teaching, and a third distance teaching. Online teaching and learning gained sudden momentum due to the pandemic.

Barclay foresees that this trend, as well as a preference for hybrid learning, will continue in future and that campus learning spaces will become increasing­ly multipurpo­se in nature.

Rather than a multitude of small private institutio­ns flourishin­g in isolation, Singh foresees more of them merging to strengthen their academic offering. Private institutio­ns are also likely to offer more niche qualificat­ions, which may help satisfy the need for industry-specific expertise.

Cross-institutio­nal mobility

Although policy instrument­s and legislatio­n recognise private institutio­ns, the focus since democratis­ation a quarter of a century ago has been largely on protecting and strengthen­ing public institutio­ns, says Stadio’s Singh.

Where private institutio­ns do feature, the topics of regulation and sectoral quality control are often prioritise­d above enhancing the prosperity of these institutio­ns.

According to Barclay, there is room to create opportunit­ies for students who want to move between private and public institutio­ns to obtain their qualificat­ions.

Greater cross-institutio­nal mobility and mechanisms for students to articulate their qualificat­ions may help broaden accessibil­ity. Such a dual-pathway model will demand greater support from policy circles.

“Prospectiv­e students will soon have more choices,” Barclay foresees. “It will, however, take some time for the system to become sufficient­ly streamline­d to truly ensure cross-mobility between private and public institutio­ns.”

 ??  ?? Jorisna Bonthuys is a freelance journalist.
Jorisna Bonthuys is a freelance journalist.
 ??  ?? By Jorisna Bonthuys
By Jorisna Bonthuys

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