Buti Manamela, South Africa’s deputy minister of higher education, science and innovation, has been focusing his attention on bogus colleges. Starting in Cape Town, he embarked last month on a country-wide roadshow to visit private universities, vowing to apply sanctions to those institutions that are flouting the country’s regulations by offering fake degrees.
Last week, he provided an update on how it’s all going and how his department is working with the police and the department of education to close down these institutions. In some cases, the FBI has also been called in as given some of these colleges are affiliated with US based operators.
It is good news that the government of South Africa is continuing its efforts to crack down on unlicensed institutions. The rise of fake and unregistered colleges offering fraudulent qualifications led the government in 2019 to introduce the National Qualifications Framework Amendment Act, making it a crime to claim or hold a fraudulent qualification. At the time, more than 40 fake universities were prosecuted.
But according to some reports, despite the legislation, these types of bogus colleges have continued to grow. A recent investigative programme on SABC exposed a number of illegal colleges employing unaccredited teachers. The problem is that these colleges operate outside the national education system, and they tend to attract the most disadvantaged populations, the ones who could least afford to pay the price of a bad education. Not only do they offer degrees and certificates that do not advance the learning or prospects of students, they leave them indebted. These types of colleges also tend to have academic staff who are less qualified and receive lower regular pay.
Will the minister’s efforts this time around bring about an end to this practice?
The government runs the real risk of failing to effectively clamp down on these colleges if it does not address the root cause of the problem and improve its oversight of the sector.
The rise of low-quality private universities is not just an issue in South Africa but a problem that is growing globally. In December, Unesco’s Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report published Who Chooses? Who Loses?, a comprehensive study drawing attention to the role and effect of private schools in education systems. The report warns that there is weak oversight of private actors in education in all contexts globally, which has serious consequences for equity and learning outcomes.
Today, around the world, one in three students are educated by non-state actors in higher education. In South Africa, about 10% of students are enrolled in tertiary education with an estimated 200 000 students studying in private colleges in the country by latest counts. Part of the reason for this growth is simply to meet the demand. Private universities can also play a valuable role in increasing access to education for people from various socioeconomic backgrounds. In South Africa, there are great examples such as Cida City campus, a low-cost university targeting poor black students, and Tsiba, a nonprofit institution financed by corporate sponsors, which offers business programmes to financially and educationally disadvantaged students.
But the report warns that weak oversight is allowing many institutions to operate without any nod to equity and quality. Many of the bogus universities in South Africa are charging fees as profit-making entities, for instance, something that the report warns is having a detrimental effect on learning. One study in the US found that student outcomes deteriorate as the incentive for profit maximisation increases as many of these institutions put the interest of the investors first. Only 27 out of 184 countries have banned profit making at the tertiary education level as a result. It might be time for South Africa to consider doing the same.
There is no doubt that private education is here to stay. But following the recommendations in Unesco’s latest report on this issue, the government needs a clear vision and framework of how it wants to work with private universities to make sure that equity and quality are not forgotten. They need to communicate this vision through regulations that are consistently enforced through quality assurance mechanisms. Greater levels of scrutiny are critical. Once in operation, quality control tends to be input- and output-based, focusing on infrastructure, student numbers and academic staff qualifications. Continuous government oversight through inspections, evaluations and learning assessments should be common across all providers. Most importantly, state capacity to implement these mechanisms should be factored into the design.
It is helpful that the government of South Africa has a registry of universities that prospective students could refer to if they choose to pursue higher education. But, given the persistent problem of bogus colleges, a holistic look at the way to regulate the sector is necessary. Comparing their own policies and regulations against those used by other countries, using the PEER website on non-state actors managed by the GEM Report would be a good first step.
Another important step to prevent students from choosing to study in institutions that may not be formally registered is to make sure that they all have strong public education options to choose from. This requires the governments to ensure that there are policies to support the most disadvantaged to study. Having quotas for students who are more likely to be excluded and providing them with financial support are two examples that are proven to work. Currently, there are no mandated quotas or seats set aside for marginalised people in higher education in the country.
A weak regulatory environment at the tertiary level is putting the quality of education in the country at risk, a situation that cannot continue. The government is taking steps to create awareness, but it can do more by strengthening oversight of private higher education institutions. High standards should not be offered only to those who can afford it.