A significant turning point
Higher education regulations and quality assurance have, in the past 10 years, delivered on two key strategic goals—the reconfiguration of the geopolitical landscape of public higher education created under apartheid and the accreditation of private higher education to protect students.
Many (though not all) fly-by-night and unscrupulous institutions had their wings clipped, if not severed, by the regulations and this resulted in a much smaller sector (fewer than 100 fully registered providers), which can demonstrate its full compliance with the same regulatory and quality assurance requirements used to measure and manage the performance of public sector institutions.
Education Minister Naledi Pandor is clearly satisfied that her department, her advisory body, the Council on Higher Education, and the institutions themselves have been able to transform the sector.
She stated recently that the regulators are ready to see the role of private higher education grow, particularly in the provision of career-focused education which will enable employability.
Reaffirming the national commitment to providing meaningful, diversified education opportunities for South Africa’s school leavers, Pandor suggested that these goals should be achieved in partnership with her department and with public institutions. Many private higher-education institutions are ready to deliver, but the legacy of the past is as heavy in this sector as it is in the merged and restructured public landscape.
Growth will depend on an awareness that private colleges provide a sound option for students with certain educational needs.
The private sector is diverse, with some institutions offering only post-graduate opportunities while others concentrate on students who want a career-focused educational opportunity but who would not normally qualify for university admission.
Fees range from below those charged by public providers to premium rates. In many private institutions fees are comparable to those of public bodies although, unlike them, they receive no subsidy.
Although students are aware of their rights and most understand that they must check on the registration and accreditation status of providers, too many still fall for empty promises of marginal offerings.
Self-regulation is needed to ensure that the new private higher-education sector builds a reputation for quality, dependability and for producing employable graduates. It is immature, unreasonable and dangerous to rely on a nanny state to regulate us. If we do, we hand over too much of our own autonomy.
Private higher-education providers are not usually as large as public institutions and certainly have streamlined decision-making processes which enable quicker responses without compromising rigour.
Independence from state funding enables better niching and requires a focused use of resources. A dependence on student fees, however, ensures that corners are not cut and promises are kept because unhappy students will not stay or pay or refer their friends.
Public and private institutions are required by law to have comparable entrance requirements, thus the need to provide student support is critical in private colleges because the employer market will not tolerate graduates who are not information literate or who are unable competently to communicate abstract ideas.
The university remains the right place for a particular kind of professoriate-driven education but this is not, apart from a few notable exceptions, the general aim of the private sector.
Our aim is to provide students with viable alternatives to the public sector and to do this through specific vocational-driven programmes. Internationally this way of providing quality education is growing.
Many developing economies recognise that private education can meet national economic development goals and support the sector by providing subsidies or offering student vouchers.
A ministerial nod of encouragement and support—as is the case in South Africa—may seem small in comparison, but it is not.
It signals an environment of acceptance where quality-driven, private higher education can flourish and that has to be good for all of us.
The next immediate challenge is to rebuild a relationship of mutual trust and respect with the public higher-education sector—the national need is too great for old prejudices to stand in the way of meaningful collaboration.
Dr Felicity Coughlan is director of the Independent Institute of Education, a registered private higher-education provider made up of Vega, Varsity College, College Campus and Rosebank College