Following a higher education reform in 2004, South African universities are becoming increasingly well respected. Couple this with low tuition and living costs and you've got a clear reason to consider studying in South Africa
South Africa at a glance
- Known as the 'rainbow nation' due to its diverse make-up
- Has not one, but three capital cities: Pretoria (executive capital), Cape Town (legislative capital) and Bloemfontein (judicial capital)
- Home to 11 official languages
- Nine South African universities feature in the QS World University Rankings 2022
- Relatively low tuition fees compared to other English-speaking destinations such as the USA, UK and Australia.
Officially known as the Republic of South Africa, it shares boarders with Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho with the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Indian Ocean to the east.
Since Apartheid came to an end in 1994 the country has worked hard to become more ethnically diverse and every year more than 45,000 international students head to South Africa to study.
Higher education institutions have been steadily improving over the last 15 years and popular student destinations include Johannesburg, the country's largest city, as well as Cape Town and Pretoria.
While the country is known for its natural beauty - think Table Mountain, the Cape of Good Hope, Kruger National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site the 'Cradle of Humankind' - South Africa continues to have high rates of poverty and violent crime, so make sure you do your research before deciding on which of its nine provinces to settle in.
If you've always fancied learning a second language, South Africa is a good place to start. While English is widely spoken and understood in big cities, you can choose to pick up Afrikaans (based on Dutch), Zulu or Swazi to name a few.
South African universities
Home to 26 public universities, South Africa offers higher education at three types of institution:
- 12 traditional, academic universities
- eight 'technikons', offering technical, vocational courses
- six comprehensive universities, offering a combination of the above.
Each of the country's nine provinces has its own education department, monitored under the Department of Higher Education and Training. Each province tailors its education and training to suit local and national needs and interests, meaning the education you receive will vary depending on the institution you choose.
Nine South African universities appear in the QS World University Rankings 2022. The top five include:
- University of Cape Town (226)
- University of Witwatersrand (424)
- University of Johannesburg (434)
- Stellenbosh University (482)
- University of Pretoria (601-650).
The academic year runs from early February to late November, split into two semesters, with an extended break between early June and mid-July.
Degree courses in South Africa
Undergraduate degrees are available in a range of subjects - popular programmes include those in social sciences and development or health-related studies.
The language of instruction in South African universities is English. If English isn't your first language, you'll need to prove your proficiency.
A Bachelors degree typically takes three years to complete, although students can opt to complete an additional year of study - requiring a research thesis in the same area as the Bachelors - to receive a Bachelors degree with Honours.
Typically a combination of coursework and a dissertation, a Masters degree in South Africa takes one to two years to complete. Research-focused programmes, without a coursework component, may run for longer.
If exams are a part of your course, you'll typically sit them at the end of each semester.
You'll usually need a Bachelors degree in a related subject for entry onto a Masters course.
PhD programmes at South African universities follow the same structure as those from European institutions. Over a period of three to five years, you'll complete a supervised thesis of 80,000 to 100,000 words.
However, you won't have to give an oral defence of your work. Once you've completed your thesis you'll provide written notice to your faculty, before submitting it to a committee of three examiners to be assessed.
To be eligible for a PhD, you'll need an internationally recognised Masters degree. Some institutions only accept candidates with a Masters score of 65% and above.
Check with your home university to see if they have any links with South African universities for a student exchange. Alternatively, you can search for opportunities with:
- ISEP Study Abroad - hosts links between many UK and South African universities.
- The Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) - offers a range of study abroad programmes in Cape Town, from the arts to community development.
The South African Rand is the currency of the country and the cost of tuition is significantly cheaper than it is in the UK. However, fees vary between institutions, courses and modules, and also depend on a student's nationality, so it's advisable to check what you could be charged before applying.
Students from the South African Development Community (SADC), which include those from Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo etc., pay the same tuition fees as local South African students. Those from elsewhere in the world will pay more.
Public universities tend to cost less than private ones and more advanced or prestigious degrees, such as the MBA, will cost more than Bachelors or Masters programmes.
As a rough guide, you'll usually pay between R35,000 and R110,000 for an undergraduate course, £1,730 to £5,440 respectively. Masters cost between R20,000 to R75000 (£989-£3,708). International students will likely have to pay an additional fee per semester. You'll also have to pay a non-refundable international application fee of around R300 (£15), and in many cases an annual administration fee of R3,750 (just under £200). These figures vary between institutions.
You'll also need to consider the cost of books and equipment and joining teams and societies.
Funding to study in South Africa
Funding opportunities do exist for international students but they are rare - scholarships and bursaries are more likely to be allocated to South African nationals, or nationals of SADC member states.
Contacting your chosen university directly is the quickest route to finding what bursaries and scholarships are available. If you find and are eligible for a scholarship or bursary, enquire as early as possible - application deadlines can be as early as July, for the start of the following academic year in February.
Alternatively, The Leverhulme Trust offers a scholarship for UK students wishing to study anywhere in the world. If you're a citizen of a Commonwealth country, you may also be eligible for the Commonwealth Scholarship.
You cannot register as an international student in South Africa without a visa.
Issued for a specific course, institution and duration, student visas also allow you to work up to 20 hours per week during term time, and full time during holidays.
You can begin your visa application once you've received formal confirmation of your place on a course. To apply, you'll need to complete the BI-1738 application form and present it at your local South Africa embassy or consulate, along with:
- a passport, valid until at least 30 days after the end of your course
- additional passport photos
- an official letter of acceptance from your university
- a clear criminal background check
- flight details, including details of your return journey at the end of the course
- proof of sufficient finances and valid health insurance for the duration of your stay
- proof of visa fee payment.
Visit the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) - Applying for a South African Visa for more detailed information on the process.
Applications take six to eight weeks to be processed, so begin yours as soon as possible to allow for any delays or issues.
How to apply
To apply for a Masters you'll need an undergraduate degree. Your course may ask for a degree in a relevant subject, although this isn't always the case - check specific course requirements to make sure. Most institutions accept applications via an online portal.
International applicants are encouraged to apply as early as possible, as application deadlines tend to fall early - typically around October, for courses starting the following February.
South Africa is home to 11 national languages, but the majority of courses are taught in English. Some more traditional universities may still offer courses in Afrikaans; however, the language is being phased out in universities to offer a more inclusive study experience.
If English isn't your first language, you'll be asked for evidence of your proficiency - typically through one of the following tests:
- an overall IELTS score of 7.0 or above
- a score of at least 65% in the Academic Literacy component of the NBT
- a TEFL qualification of a high standard, completed three to five years before application submission.
Comparison to UK qualifications
Whether or not your UK qualifications will be valid for entry onto a course in South Africa depends on what and where you're studying.
The South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) provides an Evaluation of Foreign Qualifications service, which you can use to have your qualifications verified if you're unsure. To submit an application, you'll need to fill out an online application form and pay a fee of R1700 (around £85) for the first (or only) qualification and then R850 (£42) for any subsequent qualifications you want to be checked. You’ll also need to provide supporting documents, including evidence of fee payment and a certified copy of your identity document (such as a passport).
Successful applicants will receive the SAQA Certificate of Evaluation, which officially recognises foreign qualifications as equivalent to those offered in South Africa.
Find out more
- Discover what it's like to work in South Africa.