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South Africa’s Public Higher Education Sector

The Universities
South African universities are vibrant academic centres offering quality teaching, ground-breaking research and the opportunity for meaningful social involvement.

The policy of racial segregation led during the 20th century to the establishment of universities along racial lines. While to some extent these origins are still evident in the composition of the student bodies at some campuses, South African higher education has moved beyond the legacy of apartheid. The 1997 Higher Education Act unified all higher education institutions under one Act of Parliament, governed by the Council for Higher Education. Today, South African universities are vibrant centres of multiculturalism and the divisions of the past have largely been replaced by an effervescent South Africanism which celebrates unity in diversity.

The basic university qualification is the Bachelor’s degree, followed by Honours, Master’s and Doctoral degrees, while numerous undergraduate and postgraduate diplomas and certificates are also offered. Bachelor’s degrees such as BA, BCom, BSc or BSocSc usually take three years, while specific career-focused degrees like the BEng and BA (Ed) take four years. Integrated professional career degrees, in medicine or architecture for instance, take longer. Honours degrees are generally one-year courses following the Bachelor’s degree, focusing on one subject. Master’s degrees are awarded after a minimum one-year full-time study programme following a prerequisite four-year undergraduate qualification, or two years after a prerequisite three-year qualification. Master’s curricula consist of research work or coursework, or a combination of the two. Doctoral studies follow a prerequisite Master’s qualification, and are awarded after a minimum of two years study and an original research thesis. Diplomas generally match the course levels of the degree structure, but are often highly specialised.

Universities of Technology
Previously referred to as technikons, universities of technology in South Africa offer career-orientated educational programmes designed to meet the needs of industry and commerce in a hi-tech global economic environment. Their approach to education is practical and outcomes-based, with the result that graduates are immediately employable and productive.

Universities of technology represent a dynamic and highly innovative sector of higher education in South Africa. Since 1995, technikons offered degree programmes up to doctoral level. They were distinguished from the universities not by the quality of their educational product, but rather by their focus. According to the Committee of Technikon Principals (CTP), technikons aim to “provide and promote, in conjunction with the private and public sectors, quality career and technology education and research for the development needs of a transforming South Africa and a changing world.”

The contemporary business environment is characterised by globalisation and rapidly evolving information technology (IT). University of technology education has accordingly become more international in outlook and flexible in its method of delivery, with distance and online programmes playing an increasingly important role, and IT and computer literacy are integrated into university of technology education at all levels.

Many universities of technology are involved in collaborative industry-directed research programmes and this involvement is in turn reflected in curriculum design. The ability of graduates to ‘hit the ground running’ and immediately begin to be economically productive is a key objective. Another key objective is the promotion of entrepreneurial skills, since the development of small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) has been identified as a key priority for job creation and economic growth in South Africa, and indeed throughout the developing world. In this way, graduates are being trained not only to be ideal employees, but employers in the rapidly-expanding SMME sector.

The basic university of technology qualification is the three-year National Diploma, which may be followed by a fourth-year degree programme. The introduction of degree programmes has resulted in accredited BTech (four-year), MTech (five-year) and DTech (six-year) programmes.

Key elements of education at a University of Technology include the application of technological knowledge; the training of technicians and technologists; a focus on applied research; direct interaction with employment providers; cost-effective and quality career-orientated education; multidisciplinary subject packages; outcomes-based, demand-driven curricula; and emphasis on immediate and productive employability.

Student government and academic freedom
Most Universities and Universities of Technology in South Africa have active student populations represented by elected Student Representative Councils (SRCs). These have played an important role in the dramatic unfolding of the country’s political life. Tertiary students have been in the vanguard of political views which, despite often heavy-handed reprisals by government authorities in the past, have been vindicated by the course of history. This spirit of independent thought has not only been reflected in the political sphere, however. It is also evident in the remarkable scientific research and social development programmes that have emanated from universities.

Community involvement
Today, the concept of community involvement is inherent in the South African tertiary system. Universities and universities of technology consider themselves to be pillars of the associational ‘civil society’ of South Africa, in partnership with churches, civic institutions, community and non-governmental organisations upholding the new South Africa’s democratic standards. Partnerships with non-governmental organisations, private sector foundations and public sector bodies have been the basis for the establishment of numerous social programmes.

Most institutions have a strong commitment to development both locally and regionally, providing exciting opportunities for applied study and research.


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