South Africa offers the highest standard of university education in Africa at its world-class institutions. You could join the 45,000 international students currently boosting their career prospects in this multicultural nation

There's plenty to see, do and experience in South Africa - whether you opt to study in the country's legislative capital Cape Town, or other popular destinations such as Johannesburg and Pretoria.

South Africa is also becoming an increasingly employable place to live post-university. As a BRICS nation (along with Brazil, Russia, India and China), the country has been identified as an emerging economy with the potential to grow far faster than the global average. The International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA) works to provide students at South African universities with opportunities throughout their studies to gain an international business perspective.

The country offers a more affordable university experience than other popular English-speaking destinations, such as the US and UK. Tuition fees are considerably lower, and the cost of living is nearly 40% less in South Africa than in the UK.

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 universities appear in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2019, including three in the top 400:

  • University of Cape Town (156)
  • University of the Witwatersrand (201-250)
  • Stellenbosch University (301-350). 

Many of South Africa's universities excel in certain subjects, but development studies is a particular strength for the country - globally, the University of Cape Town ranks 9th for the subject, with the University of Witwatersrand in 18th.

Degree courses in South Africa

The academic year in South Africa runs from early February to late November, split into two semesters with an extended break between early June and mid-July.

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.

Masters degrees

Typically a combination of coursework and dissertation, a Masters degree in South Africa takes 1-2 years to complete. Research-focused programmes, without a coursework component, may run for longer.

The academic year is split into two semesters - the first runs from February to June, while the second starts in mid-July and ends in November. If exams are a part of your course, you'll typically sit them at the end of each semester.

PhDs

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 defense 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.

Student exchanges

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:

Course fees

The cost of tuition is significantly cheaper in South Africa than it is in the UK. However, fees will vary between institutions, courses and even modules, so it's advisable to check what you could be charged before applying.

For example, as of 2019 the University of the Witwatersrand charges R238,070 (£12,404) for its MBA programme, while MSc courses start at R63,610 (£3,314) and MAs in humanities subjects are around R41,840 (£2,200). International students pay a fee on top of this, of R54,820 (£2,856) per semester.

As an international student of any South African institution, you'll also be expected 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 fees for joining sports team and socieities, as well as maintenance costs.

Funding to study in South Africa

While funding opportunities do exist for international students, they can be rare - scholarships and bursaries are more likely to be allocated to South African nationals, or nationals of South African Development Community (SADC) member states.

Contacting your chosen university directly is the quickest route to finding what bursaries and scholarships will be available to you. Where funding is available, you should 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.

Student visas

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.

Language requirements

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
  • 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 and sign an application form, pay a non-refundable fee of R300 (around £15) and 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.

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