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.
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.
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.”