New laws anger private educators

A wide range of private ­education companies are outraged at limitations the government is imposing on their businesses. And foreign universities operating in South Africa no longer possess the right even to call themselves universities.

Recent legislation that some ­argue is unconstitutional empowers the government to determine how many ­students private and foreign institutions may enrol, what courses they may offer, and even what they may call themselves.

Australian universities Monash and Bond, and British university De Montford, cannot now refer to themselves as universities; and the government has set a limit on the number of students they can accept. Local private university Midrand is also ­unable now to call ­itself a university.

A number of well-established ­private institutions have been ­restricted in the number of courses they can teach, some to such an ­extent that they feel their survival is seriously threatened. The government’s intention to protect public education at the ­expense of the private sector has been explicit since at least July last year.

The Council on Higher Education (CHE) argued that “private providers ... could damage public institutions”, especially by attracting students to programmes such as business courses that are very profitable for those who offer them.

The government appears to be ­implementing CHE recommendations, despite the fact that the minister of education is due to present his national education plan to the Cabinet only later this month. Private providers are especially angered by the ­government’s handling of the issue of quality.

Public ­institutions are exempt from the lengthy process of registration that private and foreign ­institutions have to undergo. This ­insidiously creates the ­impression that all public higher ­education is high-quality, and all ­private is to be regarded with scepticism—a distinction ­educationists reject out of hand.

Stark ideological clashes exacerbate an increasingly sour atmosphere of acrimony and litigation: can private education’s commitment to the logic of profit dovetail with the government’s commitment to education for social justice and redress?

Private education is now very big business indeed. Educor, for example, owns Damelin, Academy of Learning, Rapid Results College and the Midrand Campus Group, and is worth R870-million. It employs about 4 000 teaching staff and last year had 350 000 registered students—a 22% increase on 1999 figures.

The government declines to specify how many students it is permitting private institutions to register: “This information is considered to be of a confidential nature,” says Dr Molapo ­Quobela, chief director (higher education policy development and ­support) in the national Department of Education. He acknowledges that the government has never similarly capped student numbers at any ­public higher institution.

Quobela says Monash University intends to appeal against the conditions of its registration. A number of other institutions are still in negotiations with the education department on a range of contentious registration issues.

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane is currently the Mail & Guardian's education editor. He obtained an honours degree in English literature, a fairly unpopular choice among those who'd advised him to study something that would give him a real career and a pension plan. David joined the M&G in the late 1990s. There, the publication's youth – which was nearly everyone except him – also tried to further his education. Since April 2010, he's participated in the largest expansion of education coverage the M&G Media has ever undertaken. He says he's "soon" going on "real annual leave", which will entail "switching off this smart phone the M&G youth told me I needed".   Read more from David Macfarlane

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