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Top Trends in South African Higher Education

Updated: Mar 8, 2022

Higher Education (HE) in South Africa (SA) has undergone many changes over the past few decades.Local and global trends continue to influence the HE sector. More recently, a plethora of changes driven by, inter-alia, the fourth industrial revolution, have heightened the need for innovative change to ensure education remains relevant and current and in line with the demands of a global economy.

Trend 1: Growing recognition for online education

The World Economic Forum calls online learning “the future of education” in its Global Shapers report, as it helps make education more accessible and assists in achieving “education for all” – especially those with restricted access, such as in SA’s rural areas. Rapid advances in technology have seen enrolment in online programmes increasing in SA and is transforming the way that students learn. Data free online learning platform such as the one provided by Future Banker allows access to education to many more students that are unable to physically attend learning institutions or who have economic barriers to overcome. In a country that cannot build new universities to scale with population growth, alternative education formats need to become the default option, with short courses, certifications and online training becoming more commonplace. Industry recognition of these alternative education options is also important as not every student will want, or be able to, complete a traditional four-year degree. Digital education is vital to the country’s future.

Trend 2: Impact of artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) will undoubtedly change the world of work, just as the industrial revolution did in the 1700s and 1800s. Certain jobs will become obsolete, as intelligent machines will be able to complete tasks quicker and more accurately than humans. New roles will also be created – jobs that we have not even thought about yet. AI will be the biggest disruptor the business world has seen in over two centuries. As businesses keep revamping their existing approach amid the rigmarole of technological changes, HEIs too, need to delve more into technology to provide learners with the right set of tools. Using AI will also change the way students imbibe knowledge online.

Trend 3: Encouraging science, technology, engineering and mathematics education

It is estimated that by 2020, as many as 80% of all future jobs will require Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education, and the South African government has begun work on solving its shortfall, using programmes to reach out to the nation’s young by encouraging them into STEM. Hands-on, practical learning in schools is on the rise, allowing young people readier access to the more engaging aspects of the STEM fields.

Trend 4: Intensifying demand for affordable, accessible and quality education

Recent turbulence in the public higher education sector, specifically concerning the #FeesMustFall protests, is a manifestation of the intensifying demand for affordable, accessible and quality higher education. High impact, value-for-money and quality assured education offerings will increasingly be demanded in South Africa, especially given the tough economic climate and high unemployment rate in the country.

Trend 5: Flexible delivery modes

There is currently an upward trend in the number of applications to the national HE regulator – the Council for Higher Education (CHE) – for accreditation for programmes offered in blended modes by both public and private HEIs. The impetus for many HEIs appears to be the desire to reach many more students than is possible through the contact mode alone (face to face learning delivery). HEIs are currently experimenting with different modes of delivery to maximise student success.

Trend 6: Introduction of EdTech at Basic Education level

Currently, only a minuscule number of public schools in SA, approximately 28%, use computers and other devices to enhance teaching and learning. Too few use it to transform education into an experience that prepares learners for life in a future where artificial intelligence is predicted to take over jobs currently done by humans. However, the government, for its part, has expressed interest in EdTech and funded the delivery of tablets and broadband access to schools. In the coming years, we hope to see an EdTech ecosystem that attracts the funding needed to grow. Mainly, it is still far from allowing technology to open the doors of learning and make education accessible to all, as envisaged in our Constitution.

Trend 7: Growing interest and consolidation of the private higher education market

With the entrance of many new players in the South African private higher education market, both local and international, the landscape in terms of size and shape is changing rapidly. The launch of the new R220 million private university campus private tertiary education group Stadio in Centurion is a case in point. However, private higher education in South Africa is highly regulated. The barriers to entry are high, and external monitoring is rigorous. Institutions need to fulfil several conditions for registration with the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), and the programmes they offer must be accredited by the Council on Higher Education (CHE) and registered by the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) in the same way as those offered in the public sector.

The regulatory framework and accreditation processes are designed to ensure that the provision of private higher education meets stipulated quality standards. The consolidation of the market into a few major players will have a significant impact on the quality of education offered.

A stronger focus on private HE providers that offer distance, online and blended-learning options, will continue to prevail in SA. Certainly, the impact of globalisation, as well as the urgent need to massify education whilst ensuring quality and impact are some of the key factors associated with increasing recognition for private institutions. At the same time, both public and private Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) cannot ignore the challenges and opportunities arising from political and economic variability, the changing requirements of the academic profession and the evolution of teaching and learning curricula.

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