Though the country is perhaps best known for producing AB de Villiers, Charlize Theron and Elon Musk, South Africa has the potential of being a great left-field choice for studying in as an international student. Here’s 5 reasons why you should shortlist it, and 3 reasons why it might not fit your requirements.
Why shortlist it:
1. The best universities in Africa and the Middle East
Though a cursory glance at the rankings list shows top South African institutions lagging well behind their international counterparts in the US and Europe, they enjoy a great reputation within their countries (such as how IITs are perceived within India). This means that though they don’t carry the obvious prestige of universities such as Harvard and Oxford, they promise to deliver the best education possible in the entire continent. As such, graduating at the top of one of these universities means that you might just become the most sought-after graduate in your field, in the entire continent.
2. Tourist Appeal
Yes, yes, we know. This is a college application portal and not a travel guide. That said, South Africa is one of the world’s best tourist destinations and it keeps people coming back with a combination of amazing weather and gorgeous scenery. In fact, Cape Town was voted the world’s best city by Telegraph, for the 7th year running. There are few better places to explore student life than in a country like this.
South Africa offers prices which are significantly more affordable than Australia or the UK. Part of this is because South Africa’s infrastructure isn’t as good as either of the two countries – in fact the less said about South Africa’s infrastructure, the better. However, students are likely to reap the benefits of these lower costs – tuition fees for a year at the University of Cape Town run up to $10k, and a little cheaper at the other universities. By comparison, a year of tuition fees in the UK or Australia can easily be $30k. Housing, food, transportation and entertainment is also significantly cheaper in this corner of the world, which means that a student budget can take you further here.
4. International Diversity and Appeal
Despite its incredibly troubled history, South Africa has evolved into one of the more cosmopolitan pockets of the world, where a culture of racial and cultural equality is encouraged. South Africa is also at the forefront of LGBTQ+ rights, which means that international students of any background will quickly feel at home in this country.
Among eleven official languages, English is also the lingua franca of this country ensuring that communication barriers are hardly ever a problem. It also means that South African universities are part of the English-speaking world of academia that seems to (for better or for worse) dominate the global academic scene.
In universities such as Witwatersrand and UCT, a large number of professors are trained abroad – including at Ivy League institutions – which means that you are guaranteed a globally-relevant education. Numerous institutions in the US (such as Yale) also have strong ties with South African institutions, which means study-abroad opportunities (both to and from South Africa) are plentiful.
5. Strength in particular fields
South Africa is particularly popular among international students in certain fields. For example, medical students have access to affordable English-administered education along with international recognition – a combination which is incredibly appealing and somewhat rare.
South Africa also has strengths in mining – gold, platinum, diamond and coal are all mined and processed in South Africa, and many universities offer courses on these (which rank among the best in the world). Associated degrees such as industrial engineering and electrical engineering are also highly sought after in this country. In addition, South Africa generally has a dearth of trained professionals in technical fields, which makes it a decent country to gain technical experience in before moving to another country.
And here’s why you shouldn’t move to South Africa.
I risk politicizing the issue, but South Africa is plagued with a myriad of issues – unemployment, electricity supply, painful bureaucracy, corruption, poverty, violence against women, racial tensions and very high crime levels in certain areas. To make things worse, it feels as if many of these issues are unsolvable – nobody with the power to do anything has done anything worthwhile.
Make no mistake, every country has problems. However, South Africa has problems deeper than most, and that is worth considering for any prospective students. It doesn’t make it an unlivable country by any means – I’m living here – but it does require some serious soul-searching on what a student wants out of their youth. This is a country with some very high highs and some of the lowest lows. You’ll realize you’ve never seen a better sight than sunrise over the Table Mountain, and you’ll never feel as annoyed as when the power cuts out just as you start an assignment due at midnight. For some the sacrifice is worth it, and for some it won’t.
The decline of industry
South Africa is not at the world’s cutting edge of technology except for in certain areas, which means that employment is generally more lucrative in countries such as Canada or the United States. For instance, well-established multinationals like AWS (with a huge global presence) are only starting a South African wing in 2021. Many other brands and companies don’t have a presence here at all. On the flipside, many brands that do set up in Africa base their operations in South Africa, making this country the de facto hub of industry in this part of the world.
One possibility for students is to use South Africa as a sort of stepping stone to other countries – an international experience at a low cost, with decent prospects of moving to other countries after the completion of the degree.
Degrees keep people out, not in
This is not a downside exclusive to South African universities, given that it applies to a majority of European universities and certain American ones (such as Purdue). Dropout rates are high at South African universities, as the transition from a relatively weak secondary education system to university proves too difficult for many. As such, well over half of all students drop out of a degree before graduation. For many international students this will be a threatening prospect and require every ounce of motivation that a student has in them. Students coming from international syllabi (such as A-Level or IB) will find this transition easier.