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With the rapid growth of private higher education in South Africa, prospective students now have a wealth of options when choosing not only what to study, but also where. But these students must do their homework before they settle on a course or university, to ensure that they select the best path which is most likely to lead to success for them as individuals, an expert says.

Dr Felicity Coughlan, Director of The Independent Institute of Education, says the general public is increasingly becoming more aware of the benefits of pursuing a degree or other qualification through a private higher education institution, despite the fact these institutions are legally not allowed to call themselves private universities.

“People are beginning to understand that public universities and private institutions are subject to the same oversight and regulation, which means that you will be getting the same quality education regardless of whether you opt for a state-funded university or a private institution.

“Having said that, it is of course very important to still check on individual institutions and choose yours wisely, because just like the quality varies between universities, with some ranked top in Africa and even the world, while others are beset with serious challenges, in the same way quality varies between the offering at different private institutions,” she says.

Coughlan points out that with the realisation that prospective students can pursue the same qualifications and degrees at private institutions, registered and accredited in the same way as those at public universities, there has been a consistent and substantial increase in students who opt for private higher education over the past five years.

“Although some have ascribed this to the challenges in the public sector, students are specifically choosing private study for a number of pull reasons, rather than push factors from the public sector.”

Coughlan says that while some prospective students have very specific reasons for electing to study at a university, based on their unique needs, requirements or background, others are increasingly opting for private study due to one (or a combination of) the following factors:

  • Not needing to relocate to a new city in order to pursue their dreams is a big drawcard for some, while also being easier on the pocket.
  • With smaller campuses and classes, access to support and staff is vastly improved, as is interaction with fellow students.
  • Because a large percentage of lecturers are not only academics but actively working in their industries, students get up close and personal with the real world of work and opportunities while still studying.
  • As private higher education institutions receive no state subsidies, they are reliant on student fees, which means that students are treated as valued customers, and generally receive good service. Additionally, if they do not offer value for money and a credible, quality educational offering, they face having to close their doors.
  • Many private institutions offer niche qualifications that are not available elsewhere, and equip students for emerging careers such as game development.

“Success rates are generally much better in smaller environments, because it is easier to access help and support timeously when needed,” says Coughlan, “which means that students usually complete their degrees within the prescribed period, and enter the workplace sooner than others who may have to repeat one or more years.”

She adds that because employability is a key success factor for private higher education institutions, most qualifications offered are closely related to the requirements of the career in the real world of work, and an increasing number of career focused postgraduate qualifications are becoming available.

The tools of the higher learning trade also look different in the private sector.

“Assessments can be more interesting, because the marking load on lecturers is lower so there is less reliance on things like multiple choice questions. Additionally, technology use is often flexible and tailored to student needs, because it is possible to do that in flexible environments.”

In the end, prospective students must ensure they investigate all their options – in the public sector, in the private sector and by course offering.

“Things have moved on significantly from the days when the only credible qualification was a 3-year degree from a public university,” says Coughlan.

“Parents, schools and teachers should assist learners in their process of identifying everything offered on the higher educational buffet before making one of the most important decisions they will ever make.”

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