Concern over the long-term effect of the university fees crisis is likely to push more wealthy parents to enroll their children to study at private and overseas institutions.
University leaders sounded this warning as the call for free higher education and a second consecutive 0% increase gains momentum.
Dr Sizwe Mabizela, vice-chancellor of Rhodes University, and Professor Yunus Ballim, vice-chancellor of Sol Plaatje University in the Northern Cape, said that unless sustainable funding solutions are found, children in working-class and poor communities may have to settle for “qualifications of middling to mediocre quality” down the line.
Universities South Africa (Usaf), an association representing the vice-chancellors of the 26 public universities, recently stated that premature free education would result in wealthy families sending their children to private universities or to study abroad, “leaving the poor to receive substandard education”.
It said that if tuition fees dried up, it would lead to unavoidable budget cuts and the quality of higher education would be compromised, with the sector “haemorrhaging staff” to more stable environments.
“Research could become compromised and academics demoralised,” Usaf said, adding that ultimately, “the higher education sector would collapse”.
Mabizela and Ballim said there was an argument that the more affluent should be paying higher fees. “Indeed, many wealthy families send their children to private schools where the tuition fees are two to three times that of university fees and they sustain this for 12 years of schooling.”
They said that while universal fee-free university education was a noble goal to pursue, “we should safeguard, and indeed enhance, the quality of our public higher education system. If we fail to do so, we run the risk of creating improved access to poor-quality higher education.”
The Mail & Guardian spoke to various international universities, which all confirmed that they were gaining in popularity with South Africans. A total of 592 South Africans are either completing their undergraduate or postgraduate studies, or are visiting scholars, at 19 universities in the United Kingdom and United States, according to a random survey conducted by the M&G. Significantly, 221 of them opted to pursue their first degree elsewhere rather than locally.
Dr Julia Paolitto, the media relations manager at Oxford University, said: “As international students, South African applicants are not eligible for the main university bursary scheme, but there are a number of scholarships they would be eligible for.”
The tuition fee for an overseas undergraduate student at Oxford is between R282 059 and R415 206, plus a separate college fee of R131 578.
In comparison, this year’s fees for an undergraduate degree at the University of the Witwatersrand ranged from R29 620 for teaching to R59 140 for medicine.
Cambridge University said its vice-chancellor, Leszek Borysiewicz, had spoken passionately about the role that universities such as Cambridge should be playing to help more African researchers become leaders in their fields. “This burgeoning relationship makes Cambridge a particularly welcoming and inspiring place for South African students and academics to work in.”
Chris Melvin, media and public relations officer at the University of Bath in the UK, said its 57 postgraduate students from South Africa included 27 from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth.
“We received applications for admission this coming year from 86 students who were either South African or domiciled in South Africa. Management is the most popular area, with 25 applicants this year,” he said.
Luke Walton, international press officer at the University of Warwick in the UK, said 71 South African students had applied for admission for the 2016/2017 academic year, including 35 for undergraduate qualifications.
He said most had enrolled for programmes in economics, law, English and comparative literary studies, complex systems science and French and German studies.
“Generally, South African students are self-funded. We have also received financial guaranteed letters from Deloitte Consulting Ltd, Standard Bank of South Africa and Arup (Pty) Ltd.”
Walton said Warwick University had 504 alumni living and working in South Africa, including Moeletsi Mbeki and former communications minister Yunus Carrim.
Chris Lane from University College London said: “Both self-financed and funded students come to UCL. Students from South Africa are able to apply for a number of scholarships offered either by UCL, the individual departments or from the government.”
Derek MacLeod, Africa regional director at the University of Edinburgh, said about 50 South African students graduated from the university last year.
“We do receive a large and increasing number of inquiries each year from South Africa [for admission]. The most popular subjects would typically be engineering, business and economics.”
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US confirmed that nine of the 12 South African students who enrolled last year were studying engineering.
South African-born Jeffrey Koseff, a professor of engineering at Stanford University who has been living in the US since 1977, said South African students mostly came with their own funding.
“This could have been personal or it could have been scholarships from South Africa. Over the years, I have personally known about eight to 10 students from South Africa studying engineering.
“Given that Stanford’s engineering school is the top school in the USA along with MIT, it is not surprising that they would seek to gain admission.”
Snakes alive! Foreign postdocs are flocking to Wits for an ‘Ivy League’ experience
More than 200 postdoctoral students from 41 countries are involved in research at the University of the Witwatersrand.
The research fellows include 12 from the United States, 13 from the United Kingdom and 20 from India, according to Wits.
Among them is Frenchman Xavier Glaudas, who catches snakes for a living. He specialises in studying factors that affect animals and his favourite creatures are snakes, particularly vipers.
“There are about 300 to 350 species of Viperidae in the wild and their common feature is that they are all venomous,” he said.
Glaudas, who completed his PhD in the US, was appointed as a postdoctoral research fellow in the university’s School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Studies under Professor Graham Alexander. He is nearing the end of his three-year research project to determine whether the availability of food plays a role in the birth rates of puff adders.
Rob Drennan, a postdoctoral co-ordinator at Wits, said many students from the rest of Africa and abroad opted to do their postdoctoral research there because it was renowned as a “high-quality, research-intensive university”. He added: “World university rankings help to build this perception.”
He said candidates must hold a doctorate and are required to have published research findings. “Their area of research must match with the potential host (or mentor) at Wits. This is because the postdoc and the host collaborate on joint research projects.”
He believes Wits’s postdoctoral experience matches that of Ivy League universities in the US and UK.
“I am sure that the Ivy Leagues may offer some things we cannot afford but being in South Africa, and in Johannesburg, gives our postdocs access to a diverse and complex cosmopolitan society and environment that would be difficult to find in other places around the world.”
And, with adequate funding, the institution could easily take on another 100 postdocs each year.
South African twin sisters Talia da Silva (r) and Tercia Jansen van Vuuren, who studied civil engineering at the University of Pretoria, now study at Cambridge university.
South African twin sisters engineer success – and a social life – at Cambridge
South African twin sisters Talia da Silva and Tercia Jansen van Vuuren, who studied civil engineering at the University of Pretoria, are recipients of the Gates Cambridge scholarship.
Talia is studying towards a PhD in civil engineering at Cambridge, while Tercia has just completed her MPhil in engineering for sustainable development – a one-year part-taught and part-research programme.
Talia said: “In my field of study, Cambridge offered the best possible opportunity, and I was keen to be involved in research at a world-renowned institution.
“I have really enjoyed my time here, and the opportunity to get involved in various societies and sports that I would not as easily have encountered back home, such as rowing. Cambridge has so much happening, academically and socially.”
Tercia said Cambridge was “a melting pot of cultures and experiences which offers you a unique opportunity to learn from those around you”.
She added: “It offers the opportunity to engage with like-minded people from all over the world with a variety of backgrounds and experiences to discuss the challenges facing the world and how to create the necessary change.”