South Africa universities winning race for Africa's students: Here are their secrets and deals you need to know about

There were 380,376 African students on the move in 2010 - most, 29.2%, went to France. Next, 15% ended up in South Africa.

THIS IS is the first in our series aimed to make it easier to do business in Africa, and offer information on opportunities for study and travel in the continent in one place:

In mid-August a report in South African media said, “New university to be Africa’s ‘rival to Harvard’”.

The first campus, the work of Fred Swaniker, co-founder of the Johannesburg-based African Leadership Academy (ALA), will take in talented but deprived students from across the African continent, it was reported.

Kenya’s Equity Bank, the report said, is supporting the next campus to be set up in Kenya, with other campuses due in Nigeria and Morocco.

Coca-cola, IBM, Boston Consulting Group and Standard Chartered Bank, among other companies, have partnered with ALU to fund the students who will attend the university in Mauritius.

More than 80% of ALA graduates go on to study at universities overseas such as Harvard, Yale and Duke. Swaniker said most students go to universities abroad due to a lack of funding for foreign students’ tertiary studies within South Africa.

A talented student from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was more likely to get a scholarship from Harvard or Yale universities than the University of Cape Town or Witswatersrand, Swaniker said.

There is a reason why this story played in the South African media, and hardly anywhere else on the continent: Foreign students, especially from Africa, have become bread and butter for South Africa’s universities and the economy of, especially, the country’s richest province Gauteng.

Last year, University World News cited a French government’s Campus Agency that noted that there were 380,376 African students were on the move in 2010, representing about a tenth of all international students worldwide and 6% of all African students. France was the destination for the greatest share with 111,195, or 29.2% of the total.

How South Africa became king

Second was not the USA or UK, it is was South Africa with 57,321 (15%) of the students; third UK, 36,963, fourth USA, 36,738 (9.7% ); fifth Germany with 17,824 (4.7%); and sixth Malaysia with 14,744 (3.9%).

It would be ironical indeed if South African universities have to worry about foreign competitors because they don’t offer many scholarships because it was affordable fees, a good reputation, proximity to home and government subsidies for students from the South Africa Development Community (SADC) region, that enabled South Africa emerge as a leading university destination for African students, and edge out the UK, US and Australia that had for long dominated taken most of them. 

With 23 public higher education institutions, over the past few years South Africa has become Africa’s leader in the provision of quality higher education. It is estimated today that for every 12 students that enter South Africa, one goes overseas.

Since 2007, there has been an 8% increase of international students studying in South Africa. Most of these students come from other African countries. According to data from Higher Education in South Africa (HESA) there are approximately 68,000 students enrolled in South Africa, with 72% of them coming from Southern Africa, 17% from the rest of Africa and 11% from the rest of the world. 

Since approximately 10% of all students that study abroad are from the African continent, 380,000 in total, that would mean that almost 18% of all African students studying abroad are currently studying in South Africa. 

Here are the country’s “Top Ten” universities:

However, South Africa does not have its own ranking system so the top 10 does vary according to different rankings - although there are some universities that clearly dominate:

As more and more students choose to continue their academic career on the African continent, three main hubs have emerged in the last decade: South-Africa for English speaking students, Morocco for Francophone students and Angola for those that speak Portuguese. The fact that South Africa is a politically stable English-speaking country has given it the edge to make it the Anglophone student hub of Africa, bringing in large numbers of english-speaking Africans. 

The first major study of international students in South Africa, by Jenny Lee and Chika Sehoole, stated that “international students came to South Africa looking for better study opportunities and for economic reasons.” The reputation of the South African higher education system and the quality available has drawn many African students here - particularly for courses in the sciences. “These students come to South Africa to do courses which are not necessarily available in their countries.”

A more open road

Another fuel for  the growth of African university students in South Africa is the relatively straightforward visa processes for potential students, less complex than in Europe or the US. African students intending to study in South Africa must apply for and be granted a study permit. The usual process is to apply for the permit once a conditional acceptance from the South African educational institution is received. The study permit usually takes around six weeks to be processed and are valid for the duration of the course for which they were granted. 

Also, just because you’re a foreign student, doesn’t mean you cannot work while you study. The permit allows students to work part-time for no more than 20 hours a week.

It’s not all plain sailing though. The study permit cannot be issued based on long-distance or correspondence learning courses. Another issue as Wilhem Le Roux, from Le Roux & Associates Immigration Attorneys explained, is that previous legislation allowed students to transfer a visitors visa to a study visa, however this has now changed and students must make their application for the study permit from outside the country. 

This means that students would not be able to scout institutions and immediately begin a course, but rather if they wanted to scout institutions beforehand they would need to make an extra trip as a visitor.

Le Roux also said that the institution that students are applying to must now be registered with the accrediting agency, since some international students used to make bogus applications to fabricated institutions in order to stay in the country. However this now makes it difficult for students applying to smaller specialised schools, such as certain language schools, that may not be registered.

As well as the relative ease in permit applications, another big driver in African student growth in South African universities is the comparatively lower cost of living and affordable fees than in the West, and available grants and subsidies from the southern African region.

It’s the fees stupid

In the UK for example students from outside the EU will pay up to four times the fees  charged to UK students. Some undergraduates will pay up to $56,000 a year - against a maximum of approximately $14,000 paid by UK and EU students. This contrasts unfavourably with international fees of approximately $6,800 at the University of Cape Town for an international student on a full-time undergraduate degree. But they do vary too.

 For example, on average students enrolling at the University of Cape Town can expect to pay between 38% and 67% more for a year of study than the average South African university.

For students from the SADC there’s even better news. The South African government entered into an agreement with SADC countries under which regional students pay the same fees as local students and are subsidised by the state.

This partly accounts for the high SADC representation in student numbers:

South African universities are also keeping the international students rolling in by actively targeting through by their pockets.  The University of the Witwatersrand, for example, has launched a strategy to increase the number of international graduate students to 18% of the total student body. 

As part of its efforts to attract top African graduate students, Witwatersrand is offering affordable accommodation, a special fund to support international students, better service delivery from its international office, and a “fee rebate system,” which would see fees refunded if a degree is obtained within the minimum time.

Scholarships and grants

As well as grants from universities there are other moneys available specifically to African students from independent funds. These include: the DRD Scholarships for Sub-Saharan Africans, MasterCard Foundation Scholarship Programme for Africans, Canon Collins Postgraduate Scholarships for Africans, the Margaret McNamara Memorial Fund Educational Grant for Women, South African Square Kilometre Array Bursary Programme, Beit Trust Scholarship, German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD)/AIMS Schoalrships, Association of South African Women in Science and Engineering Angus Scholarship, AFFIRM MPhil Fellowships in Public Mental Health, South African Research Ethics Training Initiative (SARETI) scholarship in Health Research Ethics. 

In addition to these incentives, in coming years it looks set to become an increasingly more popular destination for African students  than the usual options in West. 

Over the next 10 years Australia will lead the way on growth in international student recruitment, taking in more than 50,000 more overseas students in this period. With around 30,000 new intakes, the UK will be marginally ahead of the US and Canada – but it could well fall behind unless it loosens visa restrictions. 

In the UK, EU and international students made up 74% of all students who started taught masters degrees in 2012-13. The broader figures however show a fall in the number of overseas students taking higher education courses in England for the first time in 29 years, as more stringent visa regulations and higher tuition fees have made it a less attractive destination. 

UK and US drop a notch

The UK is now relying more and more on Chinese students to fill the gap - 23% of students studying for masters-level degree courses are from China while 26% of students are from the UK – a sign that English universities are increasingly relying on China to fill its courses. 

There’s a similar situation in the US where, even though the number of foreign students in US colleges and universities grew dramatically from 110,000 in 2001 to 524,000 in 2012, they were not predominantly African. The sharpest increases occurred among students from emerging economies such as China and Saudi Arabia. 

The most popular courses including bachelor’s and master’s degrees and English language training. Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, Hyderabad and Riyadh are the five foreign cities that sent the most higher education students to the United States. 

Tight visa restrictions, a higher cost of living and improved institutions in alternative countries has meant that Africa’s students are now beginning to look closer to home, a trend that is happening elsewhere. Alongside South Africa, new recruiters such as Spain, Russia and Korea are entering the student market. Malaysia, a developing international hub for education, is now a net importer of international students and Japan now hosts over four times as many students as it sends abroad.  


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