With affordable tuition, living costs and an acclaimed higher education system, studying in South Africa is an enriching and cost-effective choice

South Africa, officially known as the Republic of South Africa, shares borders with Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho. It is situated on the southernmost tip of Africa and is surrounded by both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

Since the end of Apartheid in 1994, South Africa has made significant efforts to become more diverse. Every year, more than 40,000 international students head to South Africa to pursue their studies. Over the past 15 years, the country's higher education institutions have been steadily improving. Johannesburg, the largest city in the country, as well as Cape Town and Pretoria, are the most popular destinations for students.

South Africa boasts an unparalleled natural beauty. Table Mountain, the Cape of Good Hope, Kruger National Park, and the Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO World Heritage site, are just a few of the country's highlights. However, it is important to note that South Africa still has high rates of poverty and violent crime, so it is crucial to do thorough research before settling in any of its nine provinces.

If you are interested in learning a second language, South Africa offers a fantastic opportunity to do so. While English is widely spoken and understood in major cities, you also have the option to learn Afrikaans (based on Dutch), Zulu, Swazi, and other local languages.

South African universities

Home to 26 public universities, South Africa offers higher education at three types of institutions:

  • 12 traditional, academic universities
  • eight 'technikons', offering technical, vocational courses
  • six comprehensive universities, offering a combination of the above.

In South Africa, the Department of Higher Education and Training monitors the education departments of the country's nine provinces. Each province customises its education and training programmes to cater to both local and national needs and interests. Therefore, the quality and type of education you receive will differ according to the institution you select.

A total of 11 South African universities appear in the QS World University Rankings 2024. The top five are:

  • University of Cape Town (176)
  • University of Witwatersrand (264)
  • Stellenbosh University (283)
  • University of Johannesburg (306)
  • University of Pretoria (323).

The academic year is divided into two semesters, from early February to late November, with an extended break between early June and mid-July.

Degree courses in South Africa

There are various undergraduate degree programmes available in South African universities.

Popular programmes include social sciences, development studies, and health-related courses. English is the primary language of instruction in these universities - if English isn't your first language, you will need to demonstrate your proficiency in it.

Typically, a Bachelors degree takes three years to complete. However, if you wish to receive a Bachelors degree with honours, you can complete an additional year of study, which requires a research thesis in the same area as the Bachelors.

Masters degrees

A Masters degree in South Africa typically requires a combination of coursework and a dissertation and takes one to two years to complete. Research-focused programmes that do not have a coursework component may run for a longer duration.

If exams are included in your course, you will usually take them at the end of each semester. For admission onto a Masters course, you will generally need a Bachelors degree in a related field.


PhD programmes at South African universities follow the same structure as those in European institutions. You will have to complete a supervised thesis of 80,000 to 100,000 words over three to five years, but you won't have to give an oral defence of your work. Once you have finished your thesis, you will need to provide written notice to your faculty, and then submit it to a committee of three examiners for assessment.

To be eligible for a PhD programme, you will need to hold an internationally recognised Masters degree. However, 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 official currency of South Africa is the Rand., and the cost of tuition in the country is considerably lower than that of the UK. However, the fees may differ depending on the institution, course, module, and the student's nationality. It is recommended to check the potential charges before applying.

Students from the South African Development Community (SADC), which includes those from Angola, Botswana, the 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 generally charge lower fees compared to private ones. Additionally, more advanced or prestigious degrees, such as the MBA, usually come with higher costs compared to Bachelors or Masters programmes.

Generally, you can expect to pay between R35,000 and R110,000 for an undergraduate course, which is equivalent to £1,463 to £4,598 respectively.

Masters programmes cost between R20,000 to R75,000 (£836-£3,135). International students may have to pay extra fees per semester, in addition to a non-refundable international application fee of around R300 (£12). It is important to note that these fees vary among institutions.

As well as tuition fees, you should also consider the cost of books, equipment, and joining teams and societies. Some universities may charge an annual administration fee of R3,750 (£156).

Funding to study in South Africa

There are limited funding opportunities available for international students in South Africa. Scholarships and bursaries are more commonly awarded to South African nationals or citizens of SADC member states.

To find out what scholarships and bursaries are available, it's best to contact your chosen university directly. If you do find a scholarship or bursary that you're eligible for, it's important to enquire as early as possible, as application deadlines can be as early as July for the following academic year starting 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

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 cannot register as an international student in South Africa without a visa.

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 degree, you must have completed an undergraduate degree. The course you're interested in may require a degree in a related field, but this is not always the case. Be sure to check the specific requirements of the course you're interested in with your institution.

Most institutions accept applications online. If you're an international applicant, it's recommended that you apply as early as possible, as application deadlines are typically in October for courses starting in February.

Language requirements

South Africa has 11 official languages, but the majority of courses in universities are taught in English. Some traditional universities may still offer courses in Afrikaans, but the language is gradually being phased out in higher education to provide a more inclusive learning environment.

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.

To apply, you'll need to fill out an online application form and pay a fee of R1,700 (around £70) for the first (or only) qualification, and then R850 (£35) 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.

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