Private sector wants to play a bigger role in higher education

South Africa has just over one million students in the higher education system, yet the country has a participation rate of below 20%. (John McCann/M&G)

South Africa has just over one million students in the higher education system, yet the country has a participation rate of below 20%. (John McCann/M&G)

Every year, the country’s universities are bombarded with students who want a higher education, but there is not enough space.

South Africa has just over one million students in the higher education system, yet the country has a participation rate of below 20%. Public higher education doesn’t have the resources to absorb the numbers and the technological changes the future brings.

Over 100 000 of the million students are in private tertiary education. A white paper for post-school education and training, released by the department of higher education in 2013, estimates that private technical and vocational education as well as training and higher education institutions will have half-a-million students enrolled by 2030.

“The rest of the world has realised that private higher education and public higher education must work closer together,” says IIE MSA (formerly Monash South Africa) president Professor Alwyn Louw.

“Internationally, governments don’t have enough money to accommodate the big drive. They accept the fact that private capital will have to extend the capacity of the system.”

In assisting the public’s demand for relevant skills, IIE MSA, which was recently acquired by the Johannesburg Stock Exchange-listed private education group ADvTECH, currently has about 4 000 students enrolled and plans to fill up its campus capacity of over 6 500 within the next few years.

“The infrastructures that ADvTECH has can help spread IIE MSA’s services much wider across the country and into the rest of Southern Africa,” says Louw.

Private education groups have gained in popularity over the last few years. The acquisition will bring ADvTECH’s tertiary student complement to more than 40 000 full-time and 30 000 long-distance students.

In terms of business, private education is growing more attractive as well.

In March, ADvTECH reported a 14% increase in operating profit to R725-million for the year ended December 2018. Of the group’s revenue, R1.7-billion or 39% came from its tertiary education institutions. Last year, ADvTECH’s private education counterpart Curro reported a 22% rise in revenue, to R2 billion for the year ended December 2017. The group — which owns 59 campuses and 138 schools — cumulatively teach over 50 000 students.

Louw similarly believes that as private education institutions grow in popularity, there needs to be more coordination from the government regarding the national curriculum, especially in addressing the skills gap between secondary and tertiary schooling.

“Students come into higher education, and they’re not well prepared, which forces us to provide additional services to help them,” he says, adding that the biggest challenge is mostly accommodating poor maths and English.

Louw, who will be speaking at the annual Education Innovation Summit, adds that IIE MSA’s curriculum prepares its students for the future.

“Technology at all stages will remain an enabler. We should focus on how we optimise the new benefits of this revolution,” Louw says, adding that South African students increasingly require new ways of thinking.

IIE MSA boasts being the first private institution on the continent to have introduced engineering into its curriculum. Since it was introduced last year, it has enrolled between 70 and 80 students. Other subjects, which Louw believes are geared to accommodate the skills of the future, include resource management and innovation studies.

The institution doesn’t receive any subsidies, the economy and affordability are key hurdles for the organisation’s development. But Louw believes that the sector will be able to overcome these challenges with the aid of technology.

“Institutions in the private education sector focus on a more direct entrepreneurial approach. We’re able to act faster and implement new technology faster,” Louw says. “This is where the world is going. The idea of openness has become an ideology around the world.”

*Professor Alwyn Louw will be speaking at the annual Education Innovation Summit on Friday which the Mail & Guardian is the media partner. IIE MSA is formerly known as Monash South Africa. 

Jacques Coetzee

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