South Africa’s Public Higher Education
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the past have largely been replaced by an effervescent South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
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.
Most institutions have a strong commitment to
development both locally and regionally, providing exciting
opportunities for applied study and research.
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