There have been many developments in the higher education sector in past decades, notably a rise in the number of institutions from which prospective students can choose when considering their further education. Along with the increase in public universities, there has also been substantial growth in the private higher education sector.
Faced with this increase in choice, it is natural for young people to be anxious about their decision – should I go to a public university, or should I opt for a private higher education institution? A massive part of this concern, is whether the qualification you receive after 3 or 4 years of study, will be respected in the world of work, whether it will position you well to land your first job, and whether it will help you build the career of your dreams.
"It is so important that future students don't base their decision on their gut feel or vague perceptions," says Dr Felicity Coughlan, Director of The Independent Institute of Education and Group Academic Director at ADvTECH, Africa's largest private education provider.
She says there is a concrete checklist that prospective students should measure their chosen institution against and, if all the boxes are checked, they can rest assured that their choice of institution can help them achieve their dreams.
"Ultimately, you have to make an informed choice based on your personal vision and circumstances, and you should not blindly follow a direction just because everyone else is going that route, or because you think that's the way to go," Coughlan says.
She advises prospective students, and their parents or guardians, to look at the following when considering or reviewing higher education institutions:
Most importantly, your institution must be registered and accredited. South Africa has a single quality assurance system and one National Qualifications Framework, which means that any institution offering a registered and accredited qualification – whether public university or private – is offering a qualification of equal standing. So if your institution is listed on the Department of Higher Education and Training's list* of registered higher education institutions and colleges, you don't need to be concerned about whether the institution is called a university, a college, or a private higher education institution.
This is because the only difference between public (University) institutions and private higher education institutions – which purely as a result of regulations may not refer to themselves as private universities - is that the public institutions get some subsidy from the government while the private institutions don't.
The world of work has changed dramatically over the past decade, and the economic climate is tough. That means prospective students should make sure that their qualification and their choice of institution is well respected by employers and in the market. Generic 3-year degrees with no practical experience do not provide a strong competitive advantage after graduation.
This means that young people should interrogate their institution about the following: curriculum, industry relationships, lecturer activity in the industry, and practical experience that form part of the studies.
The strongest qualifications today are the ones that are closely linked to specific careers and fields, and whose curricula are based on the competencies required to be work-ready from day one.
One way of determining industry recognition of your institution, is to ask about its career fairs, when the country's top companies visit campuses to meet students. If employers are lining up to meet the leaders of tomorrow at your institution, you can be assured that you are signing up for a quality education that is respected in the workplace.
Many students want to know that their qualifications will be internationally recognised. If this is important for you, you should ask your institution about international links and accreditation. Does your institution have links with international exchange programmes, or is it accredited by an independent international accreditation council? All good institutions should be able to provide satisfactory answers to your questions about your potential international opportunities.
CLASS SIZES & STUDENT SUPPORT
Class sizes and student support are crucial for ensuring student success and successful transition into the world of work. Individual attention, and being more than a number, can dramatically influence student outcomes. But an institution's involvement should go further than quality lectures and success at exam time. Good institutions will have career centres which assist students and alumni beyond academics.
"The higher education landscape looks entirely different today from the way things were even a decade ago. These days, prospective students have a lot more choice in terms of institution and qualification," says Coughlan.
"To really make the right choice in terms of the best grounding for your career dreams, you have to look beyond historical perceptions and gut feelings about which way is 'the best' way, and make sure your choice is based on the facts about what makes one institution and qualification stand out from the next one," she says.