I have spent a good part of the last two Saturdays in graduation ceremonies I had the privilege of addressing. For the audiences, as well as the academic staff and the speaker, graduation ceremonies are real exercises in patience and stamina, but this is insignificant by comparison with the joy, hope and expectation manifested by those who receive certificates, diplomas and degrees.

In South Africa, where government subsidies are insufficient to reduce the cost of higher education to affordable levels, the sacrifices made by families are very evident in the enthusiasm with which supporters celebrate the successes of their loved ones. This enthusiasm is a touching characteristic of contemporary graduation ceremonies; a far cry from the ripple of polite applause that some graduates receive.

What Oval International and the Management College of Southern Africa (Mancosa) have in common is that they are both Durban-based, private companies, and were established by local entrepreneurs who found the ways of exploiting the education sector for profit.

Since the word “exploiting” has negative connotations, I must stress that it is the opportunities in the sector that are being exploited; not the students.

We must admire these men, Praveen Maharaj in the case of Oval, and Yusuf Karodia, in the case of Mancosa, for their foresight and their admirable enterprise in recognising the opportunities, and, having done so, for ensuring their enterprises have made such commendable progress.

Each of the ceremonies I attended saw some 300 people receiving recognition of their academic attainments. These ranged from IT, in the case of Oval, and other business qualifications, including Bachelor degrees, in the case of both, to MBAs earned by more than 130 people through Mancosa. Both colleges have extended their operations into other countries. At the Mancosa event there were successful graduates, inter alia, from Mauritius, Namibia, Zambia, Sudan and Botswana.

While private education in the school sector enjoys a very favourable reputation, some fly-by-nights in the tertiary sector have given rise to some wariness about the value of private colleges, a wariness which may be shared by traditional universities which, even within their own ranks, are sometimes prone to chauvinism.

The institutions about which I am writing are doing a great deal, it seems to me, to alter such negative perceptions. In any event, the market provides the acid test and will ultimately evaluate qualifications, even beyond the institutional quality control mechanisms which exist.

The group of MBA graduates at Mancosa represented a collection of mature people who are employed in either the public or the private sector, reflecting a market voice.

I have not made a study of comparative tuition fees, so cannot say whether either of these colleges charge more than the traditional universities or other state-subsidised tertiary institutions.

In theory they should, for they do not enjoy the considerable advantages of the subsidies.

However, my impression is that they manage better on a good deal less. Judging by the students I saw, access does not appear to be a problem. But they are assisted by their ability to choose courses that are popular and profitable.

All on offer at both Oval and Mancosa are career-related, and quite directly so. They also avoid the more costly options, such as engineering and science, a luxury which traditional universities don’t have. The latter’s receipt of government funding imposes obligations which are costly, and which, given a choice, they may wish to avoid.

A private college is not considered a place of research, but this is not to say that it is not done there. Mancosa’s reputation rests on the quality of its academic staff, and this quality, in turn, is dependent to quite a large extent on the person’s standing in academia.

Private sector enterprise and its efficiencies need to be exploited by government, for by doing so more of the gaps will be filled. This is particularly true, I believe, in the FET sector, where there seems to be a deliberate marginalisation of private colleges to the detriment of the development of an appropriately skilled and educated workforce.