Suffering in private

Private higher education has come to be regulated in much the same way as public higher education in the past decade.

Through regulation, the department of education
claims to act in the interests of learners who cannot access public higher education for a number of reasons, including:

  • Not all public higher education institutions offer the training possibilities learners desire and certainly not in all regions of the country;

  • The range of short courses and courses for non-degree purposes that the wide variety of private providers offer tend to be in vocational and highly specialised areas of work; and

  • The resources and requirements for access to public higher education remain beyond the reach of many learners.
Despite efforts to widen access, such as providing financial aid through the government’s loan scheme—the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS)—access constraints remain.

Although quality-assurance mechanisms have been put in place to monitor the quality of training and development offered by public and private education providers alike, fly-by-night or under-the-radar education outfits have not disappeared.
Many thousands of learners settle for what is affordable in relation to what is available.

There are no reliable figures for the total number of learners registered in private higher education, or retention and through-put rates, and it is only recently that a mechanism has been developed by the vice-chancellor’s association, Higher Education South Africa, in collaboration with the Council on Higher Education, to monitor these.

Retention rates have long been a concern of the higher education sector. As one in seven registered students still drops out, it is no surprise that so much emphasis has been placed on the role of quality assurance, leading to the belief that better quality assurance and more student support will result in fewer dropouts.

Students who are enrolled in private institutions and academics who teach and conduct research in them are disadvantaged by legislation, which is exclusionary, even though it was not designed to be so. For example, students enrolled for accredited qualifications are disqualified from the NFSAS.

Furthermore, the costs associated with such students, subsidised through the department of education’s allocation of funding to public higher education institutions, are not accessible to non-profit private institutions.

Academics who engage in research at private institutions do not receive recognition or support through their institutions because the department does not subsidise such institutions.

Finally, and as if to create a kind of ghetto, the Higher Education Act disqualifies private institutions from parity of status and, by implication, parity of purpose with their public counterparts.

In South Africa only crude methods exist to identify institutions that offer higher education. For example, St Augustine College offers a broad range of degrees, certificates and diplomas, but can be known only as a college, along the same lines as Damelin College, Intec College or St Andrews College, because St Augustine College has only 237 students and one of the pre-requisites for university status is at least 4 000 registered students.

This is not because a history of quality private education provision in South Africa has not been around for long. Rather, it is because private higher education has not been encouraged. In fact it has been constricted and often not considered worthy of support.

Paradoxically, although church schools insisted on retaining their autonomy in the face of Bantu Education (1953), the generation of leaders produced in such schools would not consider the key role played by institutions such as St Francis College and Lovedale.

Consider another example of the ghetto: in private higher education institutions that offer accredited degrees, academics cannot be promoted to professor, which is the normal form of recognition for academic advancement. This lack of recognition also discourages research.

The irony is that, by denying support in the form of research incentives, student subsidies and access to student loans, a shadow world was created in which academics and students in private institutions were not recognised by the state.

Yet the reasons for private higher education remain compelling to many parents, academics and learners.

First, because such institutions are small and specialised, they offer opportunities not evident in their public counterparts—individualised attention from highly qualified staff (rather than the legions of graduate assistants, part-time or junior staff).

That individualised attention is often the critical difference between success and failure at public universities, where there are often more than 600 students at a lecture.

Consider also that graduation rates in the country remain low and that many students take longer to complete their degrees than anticipated. In light of this, quality private higher education becomes attractive.

The department of education has long proclaimed that private higher education is necessary for the development of the country.

Everyone who is employed and who contributes to the state pays for the provision of an education, but parents or students who opt for private education for whatever reason remain disqualified from both the support afforded by the state and the development opportunities to which it purports to be committed. It is time to reconsider the value of private education in South Africa.

Professor Robert Balfour is the registrar of St Augustine College in Johannesburg

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