Student unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic has seen increased enrolment at private higher education institutions, writes MANCOSA academic Calvin Paltooram.

Student enrolment at private higher education institutions in South Africa has more than doubled in recent years, with demand further increasing owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

There has been an increase of 102.8% or 105 942 students, from 103 036 in 2011 to 208 978 in 2019, according to Statistics on post school education and training in South Africa, 2019. 

These figures based on institutions listed on the Register of PHEIs emphasise the importance that private higher education institutions play in the lives of hundreds of thousands of students.

During the Covid 19 pandemic, student enrolment increased to 219 031 in private higher education institutions. This saw an increase of 10 053 more students enrolled in 2020 as compared to 2019.

Private higher education institutions offer a diverse range of programmes in specialised fields such as business and commerce, information and digital technology, teacher training, economics, law, advertising, tourism, fashion, arts, etc. 

The main difference between a private and public higher educational institution is that government funds the public institution while private institutions are financed by private sources such as shareholders, student fees and donors.

According to Coetzee (2019), South Africa has over one million students in the higher education system, yet the country has a participation rate of below 20%. The participation rate refers to students that are enrolled in higher education institutions as compared to adults in that age group that are not.

Higher education institutions help shape the future of students as well as provide employment to many educators, administrators and clerical staff. According to Gallindo Illanes (2021), higher education plays a key role in the country‚Äôs social, economic and cultural development.

Public higher education does not have the resources or technology to absorb all tertiary students. More than 100 000 students are in private higher education institutions. According to Khuluvhe (2021), there are 287 private higher education institutions in South Africa which provide a career platform for thousands of students who may otherwise be left without acquiring the requisite knowledge and skills. 

Private higher education institutions are under constant pressure to enroll and retain students in both the contact and distance modes of instruction. The COVID-19 pandemic, no government funding and an increase in unemployment rates are some of the constraints that private higher education institutions face. 

A differentiating factor for private higher education institutions has been online learning, an educational approach where the same curriculum is followed through technological platforms on the internet. Internet learning has significantly enhanced teaching and learning in South Africa, especially for students enrolled at private higher education institutions. 

Through the learner management systems and the guidance of online academics, most students complete their qualifications without any disruptions. Ease of access, student engagement and prompt feedback from academics and support staff ensured that academic calendars are successfully completed. Through online webinar sessions, students are engaged with various teaching strategies like synchronous learning where the academic is available online to give the student individual attention.

During COVID-19, many higher education institutions, both private and public, tried to migrate from contact learning to online learning. One private higher education institution, MANCOSA, had already been using online teaching and learning platforms prior to the pandemic and this gave MANCOSA students an advantage over students in most other public and private higher education institutions who needed time to learn how to use online platforms.  

Studying at a public institution means larger classes and less individual attention. Private higher educational institutions give students individual attention because of smaller classes and a more controlled environment. Private institutions do not receive subsidies from government and, therefore, treat their students as valued customers as they rely on their fees for survival. Private providers offer niche qualifications tailored for the needs of industry.

South African universities have witnessed unprecedented student revolts over the past decade. On 10 March 2021, students from the University of the Witwatersrand protested over tuition fees in Johannesburg. Protests erupted after thousands of students were denied registration for the 2021 academic year because they owed tuition fees from the previous year. In February 2022, the University of KwaZulu-Natal suspended its academic programme for a few weeks due to violence and intimidation by some students. Also in February 2022, students protested at the University of Cape Town over ongoing registration issues due to fee payment blocks. This pandemonium has seen weeks and even months of contact sessions lost at public higher education institutions. 

Student disruptions are hardly encountered at private higher education institutions and this ensures a smooth flow of the academic programmes. Students are afforded the opportunity of paying fees over instalments at most private higher education institutions. Module guides, videos, tutorials, etc. are uploaded on educational portals for students to access easily. Pass rates and throughput rates are much higher at private higher education institutions than at public higher education institutions.

There is a growing demand for online higher education distance programs due to student disruptions, strikes, the COVID-19 pandemic, and now the sharp increase in the fuel price. Students want an excellent study experience at their own time and pace and one that prepares them with the requisite skills for the world of work.

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