A nation celebrated for its culture and outstanding natural beauty, South Africa offers the highest standard of university education in Africa thanks to its emerging post-apartheid system

Offering considerably cheaper living costs than other English-speaking destinations such as the UK and USA, and exchange rates ensuring value for money, South African universities are becoming a popular choice among international students.

In your spare time, you'll be able to experience South Africa’s stunning scenery - whether trekking in the Drakensberg mountains, going on safari in Kruger National Park or exploring the marine reserves off the east coast.

South African universities

South Africa is home to 23 public universities, falling under three categories of institution:

  • 11 traditional, academically-focused
  • six centres of technology ‘technikons’, offering vocational study
  • six comprehensive institutions offering a combination of the above.

Universities in South Africa make nine appearances in the QS World University Rankings 2016/17. The University of Cape Town ranks the highest of these, with the University of the Witwatersrand (also known as Wits) following close behind.

Many of the country's universities excel in specific areas, with development studies being a particular strength. According to the QS World Rankings by Subject, there are two South African universities in the global top 20:

  • University of Cape Town (10th)
  • Wits (18th).

South African universities also feature in the global top 100 for theology, divinity & religion (University of Pretoria), and top 200 for communication and media (Rhodes University).

Student exchanges

Student exchanges in South African universities are commonly arranged between institutions, so check with your university at home to see if they have any links.

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.

South African Bachelors students can either graduate after their third year to receive a Bachelors degree, or 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

A Masters degree in South Africa will take one to two years’ full-time study to complete. The nature of each course and its requirements varies widely between institutions, although there is a national preference for a heavily-weighted dissertation by means of assessment.

To enrol on a Masters course in South Africa, it’s likely that you’ll need an undergraduate degree in a relevant area.


Typically, a PhD will take three to five years to complete, and like PhDs in most parts of the world will involve submitting a thesis for examination.

To study for a PhD in South Africa you'll need an internationally recognised Masters degree, with some institutions only accepting Masters with scores of 65% and above.

Course fees

Courses in South Africa are considerably cheaper than those in the popular English-speaking destinations of Europe and the USA. However, fees will vary widely between institutions, courses and even modules, so check with your chosen university for specific figures.

For an estimate of how much your course will cost, refer to this full list of courses and fees from 2015. As of spring 2017, tuition fees have not increased since then.

Other costs to consider which aren't covered by tuition fees include an initial application fee of ~R300 for international students (about £18), and fees for joining societies or sports teams.


Securing international funding as a student not from one of the South African Development Countries (SADCs) will prove difficult. Many South African institutions offer bursaries and scholarships exclusively to the 15 SADC member states:

  • Angola
  • Botswana
  • Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Lesotho
  • Madagascar
  • Malawi
  • Mauritius
  • Mozambique
  • Namibia
  • Seychelles
  • South Africa
  • Swaziland
  • United Republic of Tanzania
  • Zambia
  • Zimbabwe.

Contacting your chosen university directly is the quickest route to finding what bursaries and scholarships will be available to you as an international student.

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 be eligible for the Commonwealth Scholarship.

How to apply

To be accepted onto a Masters course, you will need to hold an internationally recognised Bachelors degree and have a strong academic background. Most institutions accept applications via an online system.

International applicants are encouraged to apply with plenty of time for courses in South Africa - deadlines for the following year's courses tend to fall early. For example, the application deadline for postgraduate courses starting February 2018 at the University of Cape Town is 31 July 2017.

Language requirements

South Africa is home to 11 national languages, but most courses are taught in English. South African universities will ask for evidence of your proficiency in English if it isn’t your first language. The University of Cape Town, for example, will accept tests from a number of institutions:

  • 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.

Student visas

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

To apply, you'll need to pay the application fee, complete the temporary residence application form BI-1738 and present these to your local embassy or consulate, along with:

  • a valid passport
  • two colour passport-sized photographs
  • proof you can fund the trip, via bank account summary or purchased return flight
  • medical insurance, with proof that it'll renew automatically for the duration of your stay
  • details of accommodation arrangements
  • a clear police record, showing you're not a criminal.

Holding a student visa allows you to work part-time up to 20hrs a week and full time during vacations. Your visa is valid for the duration of the course it has been issued to cover.

Visit the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) for more detailed information on the visa application process.

Comparison to UK qualifications

The eligibility of your qualifications to study in South Africa will vary greatly depending on where you're studying and the nature of your course. For this reason it is recommended that you check your chosen institution's website for details, or contact them directly.

For a general consensus on whether your international qualifications will be accepted, you can use the online assessment provided by Higher Education South Africa (HESA). If you qualify, you'll need to submit the relevant documents to the Matriculation Board to receive an endorsement certificate.

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