Institutions of Higher Education in South Africa after the Mergers

Since 1994 South Africa has been overhauling its entire education system as part of a broader national reform movement aimed at overcoming the inequities and polarization caused by the now defunct apartheid regime. For more than 40 years, the country’s majority black population chafed under a system of racial separation that bolstered white supremacy and denied blacks the right to vote, access to free basic education and freedom of movement.

During apartheid, South Africa maintained disparate higher education systems organized along racial lines, with vastly inferior institutions catering to black students. The scars left by apartheid on the education system run deep and it will be many years before they are fully healed. As a result of the inequities many talented young people are ill prepared for postsecondary education. High dropout and repeat rates are still prevalent and place a heavy financial burden on the entire system. South Africa lacks high-level skills and needs more university graduates, especially in the sciences, engineering and technology.

When the new government took office after the 1994 elections, it set out to institute reforms designed to give South Africa a unified and coherent educational system and redress the inequities of the former regime. In 1997, the country adopted the Higher Education Act, which instituted a series of fundamental educational reforms.

Public higher education institutions enjoy a large degree of autonomy although they are heavily funded and controlled by the state. The Department of Education promotes the educational policies of the government and provides a national framework for their implementation.

The maintenance of quality assurance in education is primarily the responsibility of three state-run agencies: The Council of Higher Education, the Higher Education Quality Committee, and the South African Qualifications Authority.

The Council on Higher Education (CHE) was appointed in June 1998 and provides informed, strategic advice on higher education issues to the minister of education. CHE is also responsible for maintaining quality assurance within higher education and training, including program accreditation, institutional audits, program evaluation, and quality promotion.

The Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC) is a permanent sub-committee of the CHE and is responsible for promoting quality assurance in higher education, monitoring the quality assurance mechanisms of higher education institutions, and accrediting programs of higher education.

The South African Qualifications Authority [2] (SAQA) is comprised of 29 members appointed by the ministers of education and labor. The members are identified as national stakeholders in the education and employment sectors. SAQA accredits all higher education degrees and qualifications based on the guidelines and criteria laid out in the National Qualifications Framework (NQF).


The higher education sector is currently being transformed through a series of mergers and incorporations aimed at collapsing 36 universities and technikons (polytechnics) into 22 institutions. As a result, there are now three types of public higher education institutions in South Africa: traditional universities, universities of technology and comprehensive universities.

According to the Department of Education, the objective of the restructuring is to establish institutions that are better capable of meeting current job market demands, equalizing access and sustaining student growth.

The merger process is being carried out in two phases: many institutions were merged or incorporated with other institutions on January 1st, 2004, while the second phase is scheduled for January of 2005.


Technikons offered post-secondary programs leading to diplomas and certificates until the promulgation of the Technikon Act of 1993 that authorized them to offer degrees. Under the recent reforms, all the old technikons, except for three, were merged with other technikons or universities to constitute the new universities of technology and comprehensive universities.

Technikons and universities of technology offer programs in applied disciplines such as business, design, engineering, health sciences, the performing arts and technology, to name a few.

The minimum entrance qualification for a technikon/university of technology program is a National Senior Certificate (awarded upon completion of 12 years of elementary and secondary education) or equivalent, but certain programs have additional requirements as well.

Technikon/University of Technology Qualifications


Comprehensive universities are a new type of institution resulting from the merger of technikons with traditional universities. These institutions offer programs and degrees in the traditional arts and science disciplines as well as those that are offered by technikons/universities of technology.

The objectives of this particular type of merger are:


Traditional higher education has existed in South Africa since 1829 when the South African College of Cape Town was founded to prepare students for matriculation examinations. In 1873 the University of the Cape of Good Hope was established as the country’s first chartered university. Other universities followed including the University of South Africa which was founded in 1918. In time, a parallel system emerged with separate universities for whites and blacks. For the past 10 years, South Africa has been desegregating its universities and trying to redress the country’s historical shortcomings.

Universities offer a wide range of degree programs at both the undergraduate and graduate level. There is a huge diversity of degree programs, especially at the bachelor’s level.

The minimum requirement for admission to a university program is the National Senior Certificate awarded at the end of secondary school. Most importantly, students must meet additional requirements that are set by individual universities and specific faculties and departments within those universities.

University Qualifications

Bachelor’s degrees such as the BA, Bcom, BSc are usually awarded after three years of study while degrees in certain professional fields (law, engineering, medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, architecture, fine art, and music) take four-to-six years.

Honors degrees generally require one-year of study beyond the general (three-year) bachelor’s degree. They are sometimes referred to as postgraduate bachelor’s degrees. Admission to an honor’s program normally requires an above average level of academic achievement in the first bachelor’s degree.

Master’s degrees are awarded after one-to-two years of full-time study beyond the bachelor’s degree and require a thesis.

The Doctorate takes a minimum of two years of study beyond the master’s level and requires a dissertation.


Although public higher education accounts for the lion’s share of student enrollments in South Africa, a private sector has emerged in the last ten years. The 1997 Higher Education Act contains provisions that allow private institutions to offer degree programs for the first time provided they are registered with the South African Council on Higher Education (CHE) and accredited by the Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC). Following the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, this sector expanded rapidly to meet the growing demand for higher education while the public education sector struggled to reform itself in the post-apartheid era. With the ending of sanctions, a number of foreign-based educational providers entered the market to take advantage of the growing demand for higher education.

The 1997 Higher Education Act contains provisions that allow private institutions to offer degree programs for the first time provided they are registered with the South African Council on Higher Education (CHE) and accredited by the Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC).

By 2000 there were four main types of institutions providing private higher education in South Africa: foreign institutions; colleges offering tuition-based distance learning courses; private technical and vocational institutions; lifelong learning centers set up by private companies to train their staff.

A recent review conducted nationwide resulted in 14 institutions out of 58 being approved.

Traditional Universities

Universities of Technology

Comprehensive Universities


For more information on South Africa, go HERE [1].