As at upper secondary level, post-secondary education in South Africa includes both an academically oriented university track and a vocationally oriented technical track.
Given high youth unemployment rates, technical and vocational training (TVET) is of key strategic importance to South Africa’s economy and political stability. TVET training is offered at both public and private technical colleges. In 2014, there were 50 public and 291 private TVET colleges in South Africa. Generally, both public and private TVET institutions offer the same types of qualifications, which may be either national certificates to national diplomas. The difference between the two types of institutions comes from the source of funding. The private institutions are, of course, funded privately with the possibility of partial government subsidies, where the public TVET institutions are funded by so-called “Sector Education Training and Authorities” (SETAs).
As of 2014, there were 781,378 students enrolled in TVET institutions; only about eleven percent of these students (78,955) were attending private institutions. Public institutions are often larger and in 2016 maintained 264 campuses across South Africa. Further expansion of the public TVET sector is a priority of the South African government and the DHET in 2015 took over the administration of 50 of public TVET institutions in an attempt to advance TVET and address economic needs for skilled labor.
At the post-secondary level, the benchmark qualifications are the Higher Certificate (NQF Level 5), Advanced Certificates (Level 6), and National Diplomas (Level 5 or 6). In practice, the names and levels of credentials issued in South Africa do not always correspond to these ideal-type benchmark qualifications – a fact that can make the assessment of these credential challenging.
Each of the qualifications can be obtained via different routes; for instance, a Level 6 qualification program can be entered directly after a student earns the a level 2 National Senior Certificate. Generally, however, each NQF level corresponds to a year of study, with a few exceptions, in a semi-laddered structure culminating in the three-year (360 credit) National Diploma.
After the National Diploma there is a Level 7 Advanced Diploma. This qualification straddles the line between academic and vocational education, meaning that it can be utilized either for career advancement or academic enrichment, not that these two are mutually exclusive.
CREDENTIAL EVALUATION NOTE: What’s a Technikon?
Technikons were public vocational institutions that offered National Certificates and Diplomas up until 1993 when they were authorized to award full-fledged degrees. In 2002, the government started to phase out these institutions and replaced them with Universities of technology and so-called “Comprehensive universities.” Universities of technology are mergers of several of the old Technikons into one institution. These schools offer a variety of applied degree programs, ranging from the National Certificate to the Doctor of Technology.
Universities of technology can only offer applied degrees. Comprehensive universities, on the other hand, are mergers between Technikons and traditional universities and can offer programs and degrees in the traditional arts and sciences, in addition to the applied programs offered by Technikons/Universities of technology. Comprehensive universities were created to strengthen applied research, increase access to technical higher education throughout the country, and facilitate mobility between different types of academic and technical programs.
Academic Education: Universities
Overall enrollments in higher education have more than doubled since the end of the apartheid system in South Africa in 1994, when a reported 495,000 students were enrolled in higher education. A significant part of enrollment gains occurred in distance education programs – 372,331 students, or about one third of the 969,155 students enrolled at public universities in 2014, were studying in distance education mode. The University of South Africa, a dedicated distance education provider, is not only the largest university in South Africa with an enrollment of more than 300,000 students, but also the largest university on the African continent.
In recent years, the number of higher education institutions in South Africa has increased, particularly in the private sector. In 2014, there were 26 public universities in South Africa, including 14 traditional research universities, six universities of technology, and six comprehensive universities. (The latter combine the roles of traditional and technological institutions.) In addition, there were as many as 119 private higher education institutions, including a number of theological seminaries.
However, the number of private universities in South Africa has remained somewhat limited during the post-Apartheid period, even as the country’s private sector overall saw expansive growth. Private institutions in the country are, as of now, mainly smaller specialized providers that do not compete directly with the big multi-disciplinary universities in the public sector. In 2014, only less than 13 percent of students were enrolled at private institutions (142,557 out of a total of 1.11 million students enrolled in higher education.) This situation stands in contrast to that of other developing countries, where the deterioration of conditions at public universities has created market opportunities for better-funded private universities.
South Africa’s public universities dominate regional rankings. In 2016, the University of Cape Town led the Times Higher Education list of the best universities in Africa. The University of the Witwatersrand came in second, Stellenbosch University in third, the University of KwaZulu-Natal in fifth, and the University of Pretoria in sixth place.
Observers have noted that black South Africans continue to be underrepresented at these top-tier institutions, which have traditionally served the country’s white minority.
Black students are also under-represented in master’s and Ph.D. programs. That said, black South Africans have made significant progress in closing at least some of the educational attainment gap in the years since the end of apartheid. The number of black students reportedly increased from 59 percent of all university enrollments in 2000 to 71 percent in 2015. Efforts to improve upon this progress are ongoing. In 2011, the government released a National Development Plan for 2030, and the country’s minister of science and technology announced plans to better fund doctoral programs, graduate and mentor more doctoral students, and increase participation by underrepresented groups, including both blacks and women, increasing the proportion of black researchers from 28 percent in 2014 to 40 percent in 2016-17 and women from 36 to 50 percent.