Private must be part of government’s higher education solution

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February 2012

By Dr Felicity Coughlan

In education, as elsewhere, unmet demand creates a vacuum. The time has come for
South Africa to consider rapidly, and with great care, how to address the current
higher education void, as failure to do so effectively will result in the increased
exploitation of students whose aspirations are not being met.
Already unable to meet the demand, the need for higher education will only continue
to grow in South Africa – in line with international trends, and the changing global
reality where a school education increasingly does not provide the knowledge or
skills required for empowered participation in the economy.
Although South Africa has an extensive strategy to attempt to respond to the higher
education demand – a strategy that includes much of the successful precedent from
other developing economies – it is not wholly sufficient, and will not ward off the
dangers of which we are already seeing the warning signs, such as the burgeoning of
bogus colleges that are exploiting the emerging vacuum.
SA’s current strategy includes: increasing capacity in existing public institutions;
increasing the number of institutions; and increasing the number of students
enrolled in distance education programmes. Providing better finance to students not
able to afford places and refining the way that public institutions are subsidised
will further increase capacity in the system. And the parallel tactic of improving
vocational training options also broadens reach and opportunity.

What our South African strategy lacks however, is a concerted effort to increase
public-private partnerships and to improve the role, functioning and status of
regulated private higher education as part of an integrated strategy.

SA’s current difficulty with bogus colleges has brought to life warnings raised in
2007, in a Commonwealth of Learning report*. This report noted that the risk of not
finding regulated ways to meet the demand, by drawing on private and public
resources, created fertile ground for unscrupulous providers and for unprotected
cross-border provision. Students desperate for learning opportunities, who were not
able to access them within the existing system, were more likely to fall prey to the
empty promises of those whose practises are not constrained by playing by the rules,
the report argued. Furthermore, the allure of “international recognition” and
“accreditation” became irresistible when coupled with “too good to be true” pricing
and incentives for registration.

It has been decisively proven internationally that in a system that sensibly
regulates and quality assures both private and public higher education, students can
be protected and the private sector can make a meaningful contribution to the
country’s skills provision.

In some developing countries – most notably India and Brazil – the private sector is
viewed as a valuable partner, and private higher education has been encouraged to
develop. Today the sector offers meaningful, affordable and accessible alternatives
to the public system and in many instances in partnership with it. In some cases,
more students are enrolled in private higher education institutions than in public
higher education. While that is rarely possible in systems where the private sector
and its students have no access to state funding, subsidies or preferential
operating conditions, there is still a significant need that can be met with a more
open approach to what private higher education can offer.

As noted in the report, there are four requirements for improved private provider
involvement, which would be applicable to the current situation in South Africa:
affordability, accessibility, appropriateness and accreditation.

Regulation in South Africa has very effectively addressed the latter two, with
rigorous accreditation processes including international comparisons and requiring
institutions to consult with employers in the development of qualifications. The
second issue, accessibility, is perhaps more easily addressed by the private than
the public sector, with smaller campuses with lower enrolments being viable in
several smaller urban centres. However in South Africa, affordability impedes
access and one cannot consider access without focusing on the student support needed
to achieve success.
Affordability is therefore the key challenge to growth generally but to individual
access in particular. In the absence of any form of access to student financial aid
or institutional subsidy, private institutions are forced to charge fees that fully
recoup the cost of providing the education and cover the associated risks and costs.
Inevitably, this results in fees higher than those charged by public providers and
the resultant challenges of accessibility.

It is therefore vital, when strategy is considered to improve access to education in
SA, that the matter of financial support to private students and institutions starts
to feature on the agenda. This form of support does not have to be a direct drain on
the fiscus and can include less direct systems such as differentiated tax systems or
voucher systems for student financial aid or rebates on rates or public private
partnerships in a range of forms. In the meantime, when assessing affordability,
prospective students will be well served to take into account success rates and
employability of graduates, as it may well be that what looks more expensive on
first assessment is a good return on the individual investment in the long run.
Dr Coughlan is the Director of the Independent Institute of Education, which is
responsible for the academic leadership and governance of education and training on
more than 20 registered higher education campuses in SA, welcoming more than 5 000
new students annually.

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Issued by: LANGE 360

For further information or comment by Dr Coughlan, please contact:
Felicity Coughlan at IIE: 011 6768021 or
Natasha Jones at Lange 360: 021 442 8169 or

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