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Degrees of learning

Published Sep 16, 2001


A few years ago South Africa offered two types of degrees: World-class degrees from the “white” universities and inferior degrees from the others. Now the options are much more complicated, with distance learning, foreign universities, technikons and colleges all supplying degree options with varying kinds of added value.

An education for “the whole individual”. That's the premise - and promise - of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). University life, it asserts, goes beyond the single-minded pursuit of knowledge. It's about becoming a well-rounded individual. Meeting the leaders of tomorrow. Making friends for life.

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Wits shares its raison d'être - to educate the whole individual - with the University of Cape Town (UCT), its counterpart and rival down south. UCT is, arguably, the most prestigious university in the country. According to Gerda Kruger, UCT's director of information, the university strives to provide students with “a foundation of skills, knowledge and versatility that will last a life-time, despite a changing environment”.

But the changing environment of universities such as UCT - particularly the political and sociological environment - is one reason why some students are opting for the lesser luxury of distance learning or the practical, employment-orientated approach of the technikons. Whatever they may claim, urban universities such as Wits and UCT, are locked in a battle to maintain academic standards, while broadening their student base and improving access to previously disadvantaged communities.

At the same time, they face a shrinking pool of suitably prepared candidates for their courses. More and more pupils may pass matric every year, but the number who manage to do so with matric exemption - the entrance requirement of most universities - is decreasing at an alarming rate, thanks to the poor state of the country's schooling system.

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The Cinderella phenomenon

Tough times for some universities have enhanced the status of South Africa's 15 technikons, no longer the Cinderellas of higher learning. Increasingly the top technikons, such as Technikon Pretoria, Wits Technikon, Free State Technikon, Technikon Natal, Cape Technikon and Technikon SA, have an entrepreneurial management style that makes their qualifications distinctly job-orientated and their graduates supremely employable.

Take Technikon Pretoria, for example, the largest residential technikon in South Africa, with 25 000 students and which emphasises “making knowledge useful”. “We have a 95 percent placement rate for our students,” Melien Rossouw, the technikon's recruitment director, says.

Like most of the technikons, Technikon Pretoria now confers degrees, not only diplomas. Since 1995 it has offered BTech, MTech and doctorates in Technology in its seven faculties - engineering, health sciences, agriculture, horticulture, nature conservation, information sciences and natural sciences.

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It is known for its unique courses in, among other things, equine studies, film and video technology, medical orthotics and prosthetics, opera and veterinary technology.

“Our purpose is to equip our students with the skills required in the workplace so that we prepare them for their future careers,” Rossouw says. “Most of our course material is compiled in consultation with leaders in commerce and industry.”

The focused environment of technikons appeals to students who know what careers they want to pursue and don't want to waste time getting started. Rossouw says Technikon Pretoria's student growth rate of 12.4 percent is the largest of all tertiary institutions in the country.

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Technikon versus university

Yet, what is a technikon degree worth? The answer depends on what kind of degree it is and where it was acquired.

Big business still regards universities as its primary recruitment pool. And some large national companies target specific universities. One Cape Town-based international oil company targets graduates from UCT, mainly because of the university's reputation, the quality of its candidates and the fact that, after many years of recruiting, it has a “relationship” with UCT.

A spokesman for the company explains: “We don't necessarily exclude other universities. We consider all applicants, but we actively recruit UCT graduates in business science and engineering because we're looking for finance and commerce generalists.”

The company also employs graduates from Wits and the University of Natal, Durban, as it has offices in Johannesburg and Durban.

An international finance company spokesman says her company does not recognise technikon degrees because they are not recognised overseas.

“We only recruit from universities, but we recruit nationally,” she says. “Some universities, like UCT, Wits, Rand Afrikaans Universiteit (RAU) and Rhodes, we hold in higher regard than others,” she confesses.

David Lowry of head-hunters TASA Worldwide in Johannesburg, which recruits for big business, has a crumb of encouragement for technikon students.

“It depends on what you're looking for,” he says. “A technikon qualification is perfect if you're looking for an executive with a technical background. But if you're looking for an executive who can solve business problems, then you'll look for a university commerce graduate. The most desirable business qualifications are a CA or a BSc MBA - something in that line.''

Lowry concedes that “at this stage” technikon degrees are regarded, if not with suspicion, then certainly “carefully”. Quality varies from university to university, he says, but, generally, Wits and UCT have the edge.

“Today, it's important for young South Africans to be marketable, not only locally, but internationally too. Anyone with a mining, engineering, medical or accounting degree from Wits is a real hotshot, I would say, and as good as anyone you're going to get internationally.”

But while degrees still have snob value, this phenomenon is declining. “Certain fields don't have a degree requirement at all,” one Cape Town recruitment specialist says.

“Technikon qualifications are far more highly thought of than they used to be, and some technikon degrees are valued more than those from universities,” she says. “A company that is looking for a cost and management accountant, for instance, will probably look for someone with a technikon degree rather than a BCom from a university.”

The “black” universities

But while technikon degrees and diplomas still battle to hold their own against those from universities, some technikon qualifications have a far better reputation than degrees from the institutions formerly known as “black” universities, such as the universities of Transkei, Fort Hare, Durban-Westville and the North.

“Often it's a communication problem,” the recruitment specialist says. “In our experience, candidates from these universities, especially the University of Transkei, have a problem with language. Their command of English is poor and the perception in the marketplace is that the standard of these universities is not as high as UCT, Wits, et al.”

One university that is striving hard to improve its standards - mainly by employing top-class academics and keeping its student-lecturer ratios fairly low - is the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

“We have much lower student-teacher ratios than the old ‘white' universities, and a lot of our community and health science faculties have limited entry,” Professor Renfrew Christie, dean of research, says.

UWC's biochemistry department is one of the best in the country, he says, and the university is also proud of its dental school, and its science and mathematics education. Lower fees, its political track-record and its philosophy that disadvantaged students should have access to education, have made UWC a popular choice with students. “We are not UCT, nor do we pretend to be, but we give a good education and our graduates can be found doing postgraduate degrees at Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard.”

UWC also “tries hard to produce students who will become employers. We are very aware of the need to produce people who can create their own jobs.”

The long-distance option

Then there's Unisa, in a class of its own and a world leader. With roughly 112 000 students, it's not only the largest university in the country, it's one of the largest distance education institutions in the world, with internationally recognised degree courses.

The advantages of distance education speak for themselves and Unisa provides a unique opportunity for students who want to study, but can't attend lectures or afford the fees of residence universities.

Increasingly though, Unisa courses are being offered by other institutions, such as Cape Town's City Varsity and Boston Campuses countrywide. They offer the structure of a university around Unisa courses, so students can benefit from daily lectures and personal contact with lecturers.

Gauteng's Midrand University started out as a satellite campus for Unisa students before it became a fully-fledged university in its own right.

“Since 1999, when the Higher Education Act became law and provided for private education institutions to offer their own degrees and operate as universities, we have been doing just that,” Lizette Greyling, Midrand's business development manager, explains.

Midrand is still an official tuition centre for about 800 Unisa students. There are full-time lecturers who only teach the Unisa syllabus. But the university also now offers its own degrees in a broad range of fields.

“One of the advantages of studying at Midrand is that we offer students who do not complete their degrees ‘exit points' for the amount of studying they have done. For example, if a student completes two years of a three-year degree, they get a diploma. If they only do one year, they get a certificate. It's our way of formally recognising the work they have done. So if a student doesn't have enough money to carry on studying, he or she has something to show for their time when they go out into the marketplace,” Greyling says.

Midrand University has 2 500 students at its main campus. A satellite campus operates in Auckland Park for postgraduate business students. In spite of hefty tuition fees, student numbers are increasing.

“Student numbers increased by about 28 percent between 1999 and 2000, and we are expecting a similar growth next year because people are much more aware of Midrand now,” Greyling says.

The university's annual surveys indicate that the students value the smaller classes and the individual attention lecturers are able to give them.

Boston Campus, which offers Unisa's BA, BCom, BCompt, BA Hons and BCompt Hons degrees, with full-time or part-time tuition, makes the same point.

The new kid on the block

Small numbers are also a feature of Bond University, Australia's biggest private university, which started offering full-time bachelor degrees to South African students from its Sandton campus in January 2000.

Bond University offers students an international qualification - the degrees are the same as those offered in Australia, with minor changes to meet South African requirements.

Corene Ekman, Bond University's spokesperson, says the degrees are structured in such a way that students complete them in two years. “There are six semesters of 14 weeks each, which is about the same as other universities, but the vacations are reduced, so students graduate earlier and therefore enter the job market sooner.”

Bond University has offered MBA tuition in Pretoria, Cape Town and Johannesburg for the past three years. Last year, for the first time, it offered undergraduate degrees, including BCom in accounting, marketing and finance, BA in Applied Psychology, Bachelor of Communication and Bachelor of Information Systems, at its Sandton campus.

Another key feature is the opportunity students have to get more than one degree within three years.

Ekman explains: “If a student completes his or her degree and wants to do another that shares some of the same courses, he or she doesn't have to repeat courses.”

Student-teacher interaction is much higher than at other institutions. “More than 50 percent of the teaching time is spent in tutorials and workshop situations. There are usually 40 to 50 students in class for theory lectures and a lot of time is spent applying the theory in small workgroups.”

While the university had just 200 undergraduate students last year, the number has more than doubled to 500 this year.

Why has Bond come to South Africa? “We saw the need … the public education system here is not delivering as much as it could,” Ekman says.

“Our aim is to make sure that our students get the best jobs possible, and each degree has a certain amount of business skills built into it.”

Like all the other institutions of higher learning in South Africa, Bond's focus is on turning out graduates who are highly employable.


With government subsidies dwindling, universities and technikons are battling to keep fees affordable.

* Tuition and accommodation at a university, such as UCT, costs at least R25 000 a year. First-year fees for BA, BSc and BCom degrees are between R10 000 and R12 000, depending on the lectures and

tutorials involved.

* Fees at establishments, such as UWC, are less than those at the formerly “white” universities. Expect to pay between R5 000 and R7 000 a year for tuition in the BA, BSc and BCom degrees.

* Studying through Unisa is cheaper, but if you do so by attending daily lectures at Midrand University, expect to pay R15 000 to R20 000 for tuition, plus about R5 500 for the Unisa component. At Boston Campus and City Varsity, the fees are about R14 000 plus Unisa fees.

* Bond University's tuition fees are about R29 000 a year.

* Technikons are not much cheaper: At Technikon Pretoria courses cost between R10 000 and R35 000 a year, depending on the course.

* Books and stationery will set a student back about R3 500 and residence fees, if meals are provided, can easily come to R14 000 a year.


David Wessels, 20, Unisa

I started studying through Unisa by default. After I matriculated from SACS in 1998, I went overseas, mostly to Scandinavia and Germany, for seven months with a friend. When I returned home to Rondebosch, Cape Town, I was keen to study engineering at UCT but the applications for 2000 had already closed. I was too late. So I decided to study through Unisa, even though the university does not offer engineering. I opted for a BCompt instead.

At first I was really sorry that I wasn't at UCT, having the university experience. But now I'm happy with the choice I've made.

Ironically, many of my matric friends, who are at UCT now, are really battling. They complain about having to attend lectures with 600 other people, and that the lecture halls are always full and it's difficult to get a seat if you don't arrive early. I really believe that Unisa is a better option. They are really on the ball, and courses are updated all the time.

I attend Unisa lectures at Varsity College. I am doing 12 modules and eight of these I will do through Varsity College, and the remaining four I'll do on my own. I pay about R440 a module and that amounts to R5 240 a year. Then I have to pay my Varsity College lecture fees of about R13 000. So this is an expensive option but I'm really glad I've gone this route.

I will consider doing a postgraduate degree at UCT, but I'm happy where I am now.

Jerry-Puie (JP) Mokolo, 26, Technikon Pretoria

I started studying electrical engineering at the University of Pretoria, but part of the way through my second year I reviewed the situation and changed to Technikon Pretoria. My reasons? My performance at university was not good. I found it difficult to cope with the number of subjects I had in my first year, and I found the mathematics component very difficult. So even though I passed most of my first-year subjects, I felt I needed to make a change. I met technikon students while doing practical stints at Eskom and they convinced me it was the way to go. I was keen to do a BTech degree, but I had to start with a national diploma.

I have been very happy with my tuition at the technikon. I am taking a six-month break from my studies to get work experience. A company called SAR Electronics is sponsoring me to go to the United Kingdom to work as a software engineer. They are sending me to Oxford. I'll be continuing my studies while I'm there.

I prefer the technikon tuition because there is a more practical element to it, and much less theory than at university. And the maths is not too heavy at tech! I am very happy that I changed, but I still want to try for a degree. When you apply for a job, someone is going to ask you what degree you have, so a BTech is still on the cards.

Trish Diemont, 21, Stellenbosch University

I chose to go to Stellenbosch because I've always liked the town and I knew the university has a really good law faculty. I'm in the final year of a four-year LLB degree. Stellenbosch was one of the first universities to offer the four-year degree. In the past you had to complete a three-year undergraduate degree and then do a two-year LLB. I didn't want to take five years to graduate if I could do it in four.

The fact that Stellenbosch is a university town was a big attraction, too - you have a self-contained university life, yet you're only 45 minutes from Cape Town, and, in my case, from home. I was in a residence, Erica, for the first two years and met so many people that way. Even the initiation was valuable, because you learn a lot about yourself, which helps you adjust rapidly and get over the big jump from school to university.

I have a lot of friends studying at technikons and colleges and I think their courses offer a lot of practical experience and great opportunities for finding jobs. University is more theoretical and academic.

I think it's the social structure that makes a university like this special. College life tends to start at 8 am and end at 5 pm, but at Stellenbosch university life doesn't end until you leave town. And because you're removed from your homes, everyone meets on the same level.

I've got no regrets about my choice. I've had to work a little harder to cope with the Afrikaans, but like most other English-speaking students, I've managed.


The reform of South Africa's higher education system began in March with the launch of the National Plan for Higher Education, by Kader Asmal, the Minister of Education. The aim of the plan is to reconfigure the country's higher education system to meet the country's social, scientific and technological needs. The implementation of the plan is due to start immediately. Its main proposals are:

* Institutions must set student equity targets, concentrating on the programmes where black and women students are under-represented;

* Over the next 10 to 15 years, the number of students in higher education should increase from 15 to 20 percent;

* Over the next five to 10 years, enrolments in the humanities should decrease from 49 to 40 percent, while the percentage of business and commerce students should increase from 26 to 30 percent, and the percentage of students studying science, engineering and technology should increase from 25 to 30 percent;

* Each university and technikon will get a distinct mission and academic profile to adhere to, to create diversity;

* Developmental strategies for historically “black” institutions;

* Unisa and Technikon SA will merge to create one dedicated distance education institution. Vista University's distance learning section will be merged with the new institution.

* Research will be funded based on research output. Funds will be allocated to improve research capacity at certain institutions;

* Technikon Natal and ML Sultan Technikon will merge;

* The Qwa-Qwa branch of the University of the North will be incorporated into the University of the Free State; and

* Vista University will be unbundled, and its constituent parts will be incorporated into appropriate institutions in each region.

This article was first published in

the 2nd Quarter 2001 issue of Personal Finance magazine. See what's in our latest issue

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