South Africa is the eighth most popular destination for international students in the world, with 2.2% of the global share, and it is the only country in Africa that receives far more students than it sends abroad. But fees from international students are not a major income stream for universities – most come from other Southern African Development Community countries and receive the same state subsidies and pay similar fees as home students.
According to the Council on Higher Education (CHE), 6,638 South Africans studied abroad in 2006 and the country hosted 53,738 international students. In 2007 the government counted some 60,000 international students at South Africa’s 23 public universities, nearly 8% of a total student population of 746,000.
The end of apartheid in 1994 marked the beginning of an international student boom. Not surprisingly – given geographic proximity, historical connections, use of English and South Africa’s relatively strong, accessible and affordable higher education system – most of the students who came pouring in were from other African, and especially Southern African, countries.
Around 85% of international students are from elsewhere in Africa, including in 2007 some 71% (more than 43,000) from other Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, especially those where English is the second language.
Zimbabwe is the major ‘source’ country, with about a quarter of all international students – especially since political and economic crises hit that neighboring state. The next biggest sending countries are Namibia, with more than 10,000 students in South Africa in 2007, and Botswana (nearly 5,000).
According to the Unesco Institute for Statistics (UIS) Global Education Digest 2009, there were more than 2.8 million students enrolled in higher education institutions outside their country of origin in 2007. The top six destination countries – the US, UK, France, Australia, Germany and Japan – account for 62% of all international students followed by Canada, South Africa (2.2% of the global market), Russia and Italy.
UIS pointed to two new trends in flows of students from 1999 to 2007: “First, mobile students are more likely to stay within their regions of origin. Second, mobile students now have a wider choice in destinations.”
The result has been a shift in international student patterns. “Some countries which have historically been popular destinations saw their shares of mobile students grow even higher: Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, New Zealand and South Africa.”
Sub-Saharan Africa sends 5.8% of its students abroad – about three times more than the global average – and 7.8% of all mobile students (218,000) are from Sub-Saharan Africa, according to UIS report, which states that “South Africa is a notable exception as a major destination for mobile students, especially those from the Sub-Saharan African region”. In 2007, one out of five mobile African students were in South Africa.
Growing international student numbers has been an explicit policy of the South African government. The National Plan for Higher Education targeted increased recruitment of students from SADC, particularly postgraduates.
“Increasing these numbers is considered beneficial for the development of the region as well as for enriching the experience of South African students,” said the CHE in a 2009 report Higher Education Monitor – The state of higher education in South Africa.
South Africa sees attracting students from the rest of Africa as a way of contributing to the continent’s human resource development and helping to stem a crippling brain drain from the continent (even if many students stay on in this country).
“International students are counted for enrolment and graduation subsidies in the same manner that South African students are and postgraduates from the SADC region have access to some categories of National Research Foundation funding,” the report said.
International students may be charged higher tuition fees than home students, but still the level of fees is comparatively low – around R15,400 (US$2,000) a year for home students in 2007. The sector’s income from international students is not substantial, though individual institutions with high proportions of foreign students do benefit financially.
A pressing question for South African universities is whether they will continue to be able to attract international students.
The country does not market itself well as a destination, although some universities conduct vigorous campaigns. International students often encounter difficulties in obtaining visas, and a rise of xenophobia on campuses in recent years is bound to be a deterrent to students from other African countries.