Good universities, low living costs and vibrant communities - these 10 are among the best African cities to be a student

A brief look at why these cities have carved out a niche for themselves among students looking for a wholesome experience.

WHAT makes a city a great place to be for university students? It is a constellation of many things: reputable universities, strong employment prospects, a good quality of life, a vibrant student community and affordability. 

Using such indicators, the QS Best Student Cities index has for time been ranking the world’s best cities for students, but unfortunately Africa doesn’t feature in the top 50. M&G Africa this decided to focus on the continent to figure out which are the 10 best African cities for university students. 

Our indicators include; a population of over 250,000, the presence of well-reputed higher education institutions (using the Times Higher Education ranking which measures research impact, the Journals Consortium and Webometricscost of living, atmosphere and employment prospects. 

When choosing the cost of living variables, rent, cost of a meal and drinking water were used, particularly since in Africa (except some urban areas of South Africa) water cannot be drank out of a tap! 

It should however be noted that the 10 cities are not ranked in any particular order. 

CAPE TOWN, South Africa

Well-reputed universities: University of Cape Town, University of the Western Cape and Stellenbosch University nearby

Atmosphere: Between the University of Cape Town and the University of the Western Cape alone there are at least 35,000 students. One of the world’s top tourism destinations, Cape Town will not be boring for the student. There is huge variety in shopping, local markets, music and eating out options. There are also plenty of bars and clubs and activities to do - such as exploring wine routes or beaches. 

Employment prospects: Unemployment in Cape Town is high, 23.9%, however a quick search reveals a high number of websites and vacancies catering for the, skilled and modestly paid, student body. (Note: If you have a valid study permit, you are allowed to work part-time for no more than 20 hours a week - although not during academic vacations)

Cost of living: Apartment (1 bedroom) in city centre: $566, inexpensive restaurant meal: $7, water (1.5L): $1 

KAMPALA, Uganda

Well-reputed universities: Makerere University

Atmosphere: Kampala has a strong student body with a great deal of institutions such as Aga Khan University, Cavendish University, Uganda Technology and Management University, Victoria University Uganda, Kampala University and the Kampala International University. This is fortunate since although the city is dynamic and engaging, there aren’t many activities that students can do. A big benefit however is the proximity of Lake Victoria and its beaches.

Employment prospects: Youth unemployment in Uganda is the highest in Africa. The African Development Bank says youth unemployment could be as high as 83%. (Note: Student passes do not permit gainful or voluntary employment in Uganda - a work permit is required)

Cost of living: Apartment (1 bedroom) in city centre: $165, inexpensive restaurant meal: $2, water (1.5L): $0.5

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa

Well-reputed universities: University of the Witwatersrand, University of Johannesburg, University of South Africa (Florida campus)

Atmosphere: The city has over 80,000 students from the University of Witwatersrand and the University of Johannesburg alone. Johannesburg, called Joburg or Jozi by the locals, is South Africa’s financial heart, so life here is constantly on the move - people here walk fast, drive fast, and live fast.

Employment prospects: In Gauteng, the province in which Joburg is located, the unemployment rate is high, around 25%. The city and its economy simply cannot provide   enough jobs that the many unskilled labourers could fill - but this may not necessarily exclude the skilled university students looking for part-time work. Finding work with a degree upon completion may also be more favourable. (Note: If you have a valid study permit, you are allowed to work part-time for no more than 20 hours a week - although not during academic vacations)

Cost of living: Apartment (1 bedroom) in city centre: $426, inexpensive restaurant meal: $2, water (1.5L): $0.5

NAIROBI, Kenya

Well-reputed universities: University of Nairobi

Atmosphere: Nairobi is a buzzing city for university students - it has a vibrant cultural life, fabulous places to eat and exciting nightlife. It also has one of the most improved liveability scores over five years according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s “Liveability Ranking” which assesses which locations around the world provide the best or the worst living conditions. It has many other higher education institutions, most famously; Kenyatta University and Strathmore University - whose business school is one of the greenest building developments, not just in Kenya, but in Africa. 

Employment prospects: Youth unemployment rate of Nairobi is put at 17.1%. However, as one of Africa’s booming cities it has opportunities for students in part-time positions - particularly in data entry and techie fields. (Note: All non-Kenyan citizens must be in possession of an entry/work permit or exemption, issued by the Office of the Director of Immigration Services, before they can take up employment in Kenya, whether paid or unpaid)

Cost of living: Apartment (1 bedroom) in city centre: $328, inexpensive restaurant meal: $3, water (1.5L): $0.8

PRETORIA, South Africa

Well-reputed universities: University of Pretoria, University of South Africa (Muckleneuk Campus)

Atmosphere: With over 60,000 students from the University of Pretoria alone, there is a strong student community in this handsome city full of leafy suburbs and tree-lined roads. Less multicultural than some of South Africa’s other cities, it is nonetheless the administrative capital of South Africa, hosting many trade offices, national government headquarters, and embassies. Being surrounded by the activities of a national government makes Pretoria an ideal location for students who study political science or related education courses.

Employment prospects: Pretoria has a high unemployment rate of about 26% - however, Pretoria’s status as South Africa’s administrative capital has created numerous part time positions and internships. (Note: If you have a valid study permit, you are allowed to work part-time for no more than 20 hours a week - although not during academic vacations)

Cost of living: Apartment (1 bedroom) in city centre: $282, inexpensive restaurant meal: $7.6, water (1.5L): $1

ACCRA, Ghana

Well-reputed universities: University of Ghana

Atmosphere: Like many other African cities, Accra has a large student body - though maybe not as large as other capitals, it is diverse. Due to its reputation and long history, the University of Ghana has a history of attracting foreign students from the region and from abroad. Located along the coast, humid Accra has plenty of good shopping, excellent nightlife and definitely the best selection of eating options in Ghana. One drawback, as in  places in Ghana, is that students living in dorms have been found to experience interruptions in water supply, and regular electrical outages. 

Employment prospects: Accra has an unemployment rate of 12.2% which does not seem low in comparison to some of the other cities, however there are many reports of students and graduates being unable to find work. (Note: Any foreigners wishing to work in Ghana must have a work permit)

Cost of living: Apartment (1 bedroom) in city centre: $1,436, inexpensive restaurant meal: $7, water (1.5L): $1.20

BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa

Well-reputed universities: University of the Free State

Atmosphere: The University of the Free State alone has about 30,000 students, a high number considering the population of the city is about only 470,000 - which gives it the feeling of a large village. The city is the judicial capital of the country, one of South Africa’s “three” capitals. It has a far more relaxed and calm vibe than some of the other country’s cities. 

Employment: Free State’s unemployment rate is notablt high at 35%. Given the high student concentration and the smaller market, this will make finding employment, and post graduate employment more challenging. (Note: If you have a valid study permit, you are allowed to work part-time for no more than 20 hours a week - although not during academic vacations)

Cost of living: Apartment (1 bedroom) in city centre: $197, inexpensive restaurant meal: $6, water (1.5L): $1

CAIRO, Egypt

Well-reputed Universities: Cairo University, American University in Cairo, Ain Shams University

Atmosphere: With over half a million students, Cairo is a real learning hub. Cairo is also a huge, vibrant city, the largest and liveliest city in Africa and the Middle East, with between 16-20 million residents. Because of the incredible reputation of its institutions and the lifestyle, the city attracts students from all over the world, making it highly multicultural. 

Employment: Cairo has an unemployment rate of 9.6%, better off than the national unemployment   rate of 13.3% and, with a quick search, there are plenty of sites offering ways of finding part-time work for students. (Note: Foreigners wishing to work in Egypt require a work permit)

Cost of living: Apartment (1 bedroom) in city centre: $328, inexpensive restaurant meal: $4.2, water (1.5L): $0.42

DURBAN, South Africa

Well-reputed universities: University of KwaZulu-Natal

Atmosphere: The University of KwaZulu-Natal has about 40,000 students to the city’s population of over 3 million. There are also less higher education institutions than other African cities, making its student community less apparent. However, being South Africa’s third largest city, there’s no shortage of fun to be had. Not forgetting fantastic beachfront, the city had a major makeover leading up to the 2010 World Cup which included a revamped waterfront and Durban’s downtown area – a buzzing place with colonial and art deco architecture – throbs to a distinctly African beat. 

Employment: Unfortunately, getting a job here may be quite the task - with an unemployment rate of 37%, it is one of the highest in the world. (Note: If you have a valid study permit, you are allowed to work part-time for no more than 20 hours a week - although not during academic vacations)

Cost of living: Apartment (1 bedroom) in city centre: $340, inexpensive restaurant meal: $7, water (1.5L): $1

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia

Well-reputed universities: Addis Ababa University

Atmosphere: Addis is bustling with students, though on the low side when it comes to universities, it is full of colleges such as; Addis Ababa Commercial College, Addis Ababa Medical College, City University College, Africa Beza University College. It also has a fantastic music scene - nowadays jazz concerts take place all over the city, and on nearly every night of the week. There is also a rising collection   of electronic producers that are lighting up the underground music scene. 

Employment: Don’t expect to find work coming to Addis as a student - perhaps even afterwards. The city has an unemployment rate of 23.3% and due to rise in education attainment among youth and the limited economic opportunities for skilled labor, unemployment is widespread among educated young people - with prolonged unemployment duration close to four years. (Note: A work permit is required for foreign students. This can be obtained from the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in Ethiopia and is relatively headache-free to get.)

Cost of living: Apartment (1 bedroom) in city centre: $243, inexpensive restaurant meal: $3, water (1.5L): $0.9


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