South Africa’s universities attract tens of thousands of students each year from the rest of the African continent and the world. Others enrol for distance learning courses with South African institutions.
It’s a particularly popular choice for students from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which includes Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. This is probably partly because of the SADC protocol, which prescribes that 5% of South Africa’s higher education places are reserved for students from member states.
To find out more about what attracts international students to the country - and what factors might keep them away - Professor Jenny J Lee and I conducted a survey of 1 685 international students enrolled at seven South African universities in the 2012 - 2013 academic year.
Students from SADC were most likely to choose South Africa for three reasons: its potential, in their view, to help them secure jobs one day; its geographical location - closer to home for many than a university elsewhere in the world or on the continent might be - and the opportunities it presented for future research. Some students said they valued the chance to experience South African culture.
International students from other parts of the world also counted research opportunities and an interest in the country’s culture among their reasons for studying in South Africa. The lower cost of living was a pull factor, particularly for those from Europe and the United States.
The research revealed a dark side of students’ experiences in South Africa. Some of those from the rest of the continent said they had been discriminated against - by their universities, from which they struggled to obtain funding and their classmates, some of whom seemed reluctant to befriend them.
The University of Pretoria’s Professor Chaya Herman has explored the obstacles to success in South Africa’s doctoral programmes. One student echoed our findings when telling Herman: “Not so many bursaries are available for postgraduate international students … Yet the research that we do is applicable to South Africa and benefits the same country that denies funding to international students.”
Another piece of research, from the University of the Witwatersrand, has found that international students battle with feelings of loneliness, fear and alienation .
Finding accommodation was a particularly fraught area for our respondents. One student said: “Accommodation is a huge problem, with discriminative rental practices by some rental agencies … who require an upfront rental payment for the whole year if you are a foreigner while locals are on a month to month payment plan. This binds and forces you to stay [for the whole year].”
During the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa, foreigners were accused of taking jobs from locals. International students, the research suggests, are perceived to be taking resources from local students. Another African respondent said: “There is an expectation that international students somehow have more money. There is a general feeling in SA that foreigners come to take up their resources.”
Transport was another contested space. Some students complained that they were being harassed by local taxi drivers when commuting from campus to their lodgings. One reported that a local had told her:
If not for [former president Nelson] Mandela, you would not be in SA and now that he is dead, you’d better go back.
The value of foreign students and skills
It is common knowledge that South Africa is grappling with a skills shortage. The government has identified several ways to tackle the problem, like making immigration easier for highly-skilled professionals and recruiting international students to post-graduate university programmes.
International students are an important source of income for local institutions. Their tuition fees and additional levy are sometimes double the amount that local students pay. Research by the Academy of Science of South Africa shows that international students tend to finish their PhDs faster (in about 4.5 to 4.6 years) than their local counterparts (who take an average of 4.9 years). The quicker the completion rate for a post-graduate degree, the more the institution benefits from government subsidy. This applies whether the student is local or international.
The Academy also found that 48% of PhD students from the SADC region and 37% from the rest of Africa intended to stay on in South Africa after completing their studies.
There are broader economic benefits. International students rent flats or houses, buy food and use public transport. Students from other countries can contribute to building diverse institutional cultures at South Africa’s universities, which is a valuable step on the country’s long road to transformation.
If the problem of xenophobia is not effectively addressed, the South African economy and its higher education institutions will lose out on the many benefits offered by international students.
Author’s note: I would like to acknowledge the contribution of Professor Jenny Lee, who supplied some of the quotes used in this study.