Private higher education institutions: Bridging the access gap in SA

Connie Queline

Private higher education institutions: Bridging the access gap in SA

Higher education is viewed as a vital route out of poverty, with research suggesting that it is an essential element of a broader strategy needed for economic growth.

Most governments prioritise education as a policy approach to tackle growth and unemployment. In South Africa’s 2023/2024 budget, almost 20% of total consolidated government expenditure was allocated to education (covering basic education, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, university transfers, skills development levy institutions, education administration and technical and vocational education and training).

Yet, the #feesmustfall protests from 2015 to 2017 spotlighted a critical hurdle in accessing higher education: financial exclusion. Beyond fees, challenges like inadequate secondary education, language barriers, stringent entry requirements, transportation issues and the scarcity and distribution of institutions further complicate access to higher education in South Africa.

Private higher education to address access challenges

Private higher education is emerging as a solution to South Africa’s higher education access challenges. The sector has witnessed remarkable growth, with enrolment in private institutions more than doubling over the past decade, from 103 036 students in 2011 to 232 915 by 2021, a 126% increase. This contrasts sharply with the modest 13% growth in public higher education institutions (HEIs) during the same period.

Although private enrolments still significantly trail behind the more than one million in public HEIs, their share of total higher education students has risen from under 10% to 17.9%.

Dr Riaan Steenberg of the NedEd Group, which includes three private institutions – Eduvos, Stellenbosch Business Institute and the DaVinci Business School – highlights the significant role of private education in expanding access, underscoring its importance in meeting the country’s educational demands.

1. Scalability – allows more enrolments

The demand for higher education far outstrips its supply, and Steenberg believes that PHEIs (private higher education institutions) can make a difference. For example, Eduvos has 12 campuses nationwide and enrolled 9 000 first-year students in 2023 – compared to the 5 000 to 6 000 most public universities can manage.

“Eduvos set out from the beginning to create quality, affordable higher education, realising that the public sector education system is constrained and that there is only so much space in universities. Our model is scalable. We have space,” Steenberg states.

2. Thinking differently about education financing

One of the primary challenges for any tertiary student is how to finance their education. According to Steenberg, Eduvos tackles this challenge in three ways.

Firstly, it enables students to pay their fees monthly, a flexibility not commonly offered by public institutions. This approach is particularly beneficial for households accustomed to managing monthly payments for secondary education, making tertiary fees more manageable.

Secondly, Eduvos collaborates with financial institutions to provide education loans on an unsecured basis, catering to students who may not qualify for traditional loans due to lack of income.

Lastly, significant effort is dedicated to connecting students with bursary opportunities, with the institution facilitating access to over R200 million in bursary funds last year.

3. Blended learning

Steenberg says that private higher education institutions have to strive for cost-effectiveness if they want to keep tuition fees as close as possible to those of public universities and colleges. A key strategy for Eduvos involves automating administrative tasks through significant technology investments, enhancing scalability, and cutting overhead costs.

With its 12 campuses, the institution has a geographical footprint in all but two of South Africa’s nine provinces. Wherever it has a presence, it offers flexibility in attendance and study modes. It allows students to attend classes, but if they want an element of online study or off-campus flexibility, this is offered in two ways.

It provides an online mode for interactive learning with lecturers and a blended approach that combines online preparation with face-to-face lectures for deeper engagement. Additionally, Eduvos caters to non-full-time students with after-hours programmes and weekend classes, ensuring education is accessible to those with varied schedules.

“Access for us is having your studies meet you where you are, not dictating what you can do with your life,” says Steenberg.

Education for employability

A higher education, says Steenberg, is a major financial investment for any student or the company providing them with a bursary.

“There has to be a return on that investment,” he says.

At Eduvos, this translates into a singular focus on the employability of the graduates.

The institution aligns its qualifications with specific professions to ensure its graduates are job-ready.

According to Steenberg, 65% of Eduvos graduates have secured jobs by the time they finish their studies, a figure that rises to over 90% post-graduation. Eduvos incorporates workplace-integrated learning and industry engagement into most of its programmes, enhancing students’ networks and exposure to their chosen fields. This approach underscores the belief that higher education should directly facilitate access to employment opportunities.

Brought to you by Eduvos.

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