Private tertiary education is here to stay

Higher education is a cornerstone of democratic development and, in our historically fractured society, has the power to uplift the socioeconomic landscape.

We have seen incredible student number growth over the past 15 years and that has put stress on the system, both financially and on how students are supported in it. One consequence of this growth is that we have probably reached the outer limits of the possibilities of state-funded tertiary education — and that’s before we attempt to deliver free university for all.

The private tertiary sector has an important role to play in helping to resolve this crisis but it is important to position that role correctly.

Private colleges and universities can never replace the broad-based state system, especially in research and large-scale postgraduate programmes. They exist organically alongside those state institutions and are not a threat.

Some see private-sector growth purely as a reflection of state inadequacy or a consequence of the funding crisis. But countries as diverse as the United States, Turkey, Singapore, Malaysia, Kuwait, South Korea and Chile have burgeoning private universities, both nonprofit and for-profit, meeting the increased demand for tertiary education that is a universal phenomenon.

Africa has been a relatively slow starter, but we have about 112 000 private students in South Africa and both Ghana and Egypt have substantial private tertiary sectors.

Governments retain an essential approval oversight of the sector to ensure that colleges deliver valid credentials through qualified lecturers and that the institutions are financially sustainable.

The most obvious role for private colleges is to relieve the increasing pressure on the state system, which cannot expand quickly enough to meet the demand. It increases choice and can deliver across a broader geographical footprint.

The private sector is agile to the demands of industry and students. It is able to develop professional courses quickly to meet the requirements of the rapidly changing world of work. The sector is filling key gaps in information technology, bio-
medicine, biotechnology and design.

And private universities employ academics and, as a direct result, help to expand and sustain that profession as a viable career choice.

But the sector has an obligation to be something of value well beyond those who can afford the fees. We are constantly looking for innovative funding options to ensure that excellent academics gain assistance for their studies and living expenses.

The key pillars of education are good students, good teachers, good facilities and good governance. The private sector offers all four at no cost to the state.

Private tertiary education is here to stay. It needs to be embraced by government as a part of the policy mix that can deliver the kinds of qualification required to drive personal and economic growth across the country.

Nhlanhla Thwala is the managing director of the CTI Education Group and acting academic director of the Pearson Institute

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