A private search for quality
Private higher education in South Africa has been around for 15 years—a very short history compared with the long and proud history of international private universities, such as Harvard and Yale.
Private higher institutions in South Africa are now part and parcel of the evolving education landscape in the country.
This 15-year history can be characterised as having started with unrealistic expectations, followed by disillusionment.
But its current phase can be best described as ‘a search for quality in a niche market”.
During the euphoria of 1995, Professor Flip Smit, a prominent educationist and former vice-chancellor of Pretoria University, predicted that the student numbers in private higher education would quickly grow to 250 000 (the size of five big universities) within a couple of years.
His optimistic view, shared by other prominent academics at that time, encouraged big business to view private education as a potentially lucrative investment opportunity. This resulted, for instance, in companies such as Naspers acquiring institutions such as Damelin, Allenby, Lyceum and Midrand University.
The euphoria of 1995 also spurred many overseas universities such as Bond, Oxford Brookes, De Montfort and Thames Valley to seek a foothold in South Africa. It was during this period that an array of distance MBAs was on offer to South African students—courses that were so competitive that South African institutions experienced a fairly big drop in the number of applications.
The initial registration and accreditation process was also a relatively easy process and within five years 117 private institutions were registered and more than 400 learning programmes were accredited, involving about 150 000 students.
The initial growth surge of private higher education alarmed the government and the public sector and in the early 2000s the sector came under scrutiny.
A consequent evaluation of the situation, as reported by the accreditation and coordination
directorate of the higher education quality committee (HEQC) of the Council on Higher Education, found that there were reservations about the quality of teaching, learning and below-standard facilities, with staff and resources, such as library facilities, listed as possible problem areas.
In addition, concerns were raised about foreign institutions offering inappropriate qualifications and exploiting naive students. This led to a strict second round of accreditation of learning programmes, which included rigorous site visits by peer review teams under the jurisdiction of the HEQC.
The outcome of this process was that only private institutions offering high-quality programmes survived.
There are now 81 registered institutions—and all but a few of them are South African. Looking back, the HEQC has done the private higher education sector a favour by accrediting only those learning programmes that were supported by strong quality mechanisms.
Today private higher students account for only 4% of the total South African student body, so the sector remains fairly small, but, the profile of the student body is starting to reflect that of the general population. For example, in the late 1990s the IMM Graduate School of Marketing had only 40% black students. This has increased to nearly 70%.
Leading black educationists such as Tony Kathle, the chief executive of the Association of Private Providers of Education, Training and Development, have played a major role in making the private highereducation sector more accessible to black students by expanding their education opportunities.
The majority of the registered private colleges offer programmes such as commercial arts, media and marketing, business and management, information technology, tourism, theology, beauty and alternative therapies.
The sector does not only offer certificate and diploma programmes, as is sometimes perceived. An analysis of programmes indicates that most private providers now offer degrees, some of which extend to doctoral level.
Many private institutions have become household names. Besides the IMM Graduate School of Marketing, Damelin and Varsity College, institutions such as Monash, Mancosa, Vega and the AAA have become favourites with the younger generation of students.
Professor Zak Nel has been involved in private higher education in South Africa since its inception in 1995. He is the head of academics at the IMM Graduate School of Marketing