Public university or private institution?


Going to a public university isn't the only way of getting credible, affordable qualifications. With the rapid growth of private higher education in South Africa, matrics 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 institution to ensure they select the path most likely to lead to success for them as individuals, says Dr Felicity Coughlan, Director of The Independent Institute of Education.

Same qualifications, same regulations 

“Private institutions are legally not allowed to call themselves private universities, but people are beginning to understand that both public universities and private institutions are subject to the same oversight, regulation and accreditation, which means you will be getting the same quality education regardless of whether you opt for a state-funded university or a private institution," she explains.

Coughlan points out that there has been a consistent and substantial increase in students who opt for private higher education over the past 5 years. Some may ascribe this to the current challenges in South Africa's universities, but she says that there are many features of private institutions that offer real pulling power:

1. With smaller campuses and classes, access to support and staff is vastly improved

“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.”

“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.”

2. Real industry exposure

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.

Coughlan 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.

3. Because it's private, students are customers

As private higher education institutions receive no state subsidies, they are reliant on student fees, which means students are treated as customers and generally receive good service. If they do not offer value for money and a credible, quality educational offering, they face having to close their doors.

4. Niche qualifications

Many private institutions offer niche qualifications that are not available elsewhere, and equip students for emerging careers such as game development.

Do your research and select wisely

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

“It is naturally 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.

“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.” 

Read more about tertiary education in South Africa:

Would you consider attending a private institution instead of a public university (or sending your teen?) Send your comments to and we may publish them.

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