By Dr Felicity Coughlan

In education, as elsewhere, unmet demand creates a vacuum. The time has come for South Africa to consider rapidly, and with great care, how to address the current higher education void, as failure to do so effectively will result in the increased exploitation of students whose aspirations are not being met.
Already unable to meet the demand, the need for higher education will only continue to grow in South Africa – in line with international trends, and the changing global reality where a school education increasingly does not provide the knowledge or skills required for empowered participation in the economy.
Although South Africa has an extensive strategy to attempt to respond to the higher education demand – a strategy that includes much of the successful precedent from other developing economies – it is not wholly sufficient, and will not ward off the dangers of which we are already seeing the warning signs, such as the burgeoning of bogus colleges that are exploiting the emerging vacuum.
SA’s current strategy includes: increasing capacity in existing public institutions; increasing the number of institutions; and increasing the number of students enrolled in distance education programmes.  Providing better finance to students not able to afford places and refining the way that public institutions are subsidised will further increase capacity in the system.  And the parallel tactic of improving vocational training options also broadens reach and opportunity.  
What our South African strategy lacks however, is a concerted effort to increase public-private partnerships and to improve the role, functioning and status of regulated private higher education as part of an integrated strategy.
SA’s current difficulty with bogus colleges has brought to life warnings raised in 2007, in a Commonwealth of Learning report*. This report noted that the risk of not finding regulated ways to meet the demand, by drawing on private and public resources, created fertile ground for unscrupulous providers and for unprotected cross-border provision.  Students desperate for learning opportunities, who were not able to access them within the existing system, were more likely to fall prey to the empty promises of those whose practises are not constrained by playing by the rules, the report argued. Furthermore, the allure of “international recognition” and “accreditation” became irresistible when coupled with “too good to be true” pricing and incentives for registration.
It has been decisively proven internationally that in a system that sensibly regulates and quality assures both private and public higher education, students can be protected and the private sector can make a meaningful contribution to the country’s skills provision. 
In some developing countries – most notably India and Brazil – the private sector is viewed as a valuable partner, and private higher education has been encouraged to develop. Today the sector offers meaningful, affordable and accessible alternatives to the public system and in many instances in partnership with it.  In some cases, more students are enrolled in private higher education institutions than in public higher education. While that is rarely possible in systems where the private sector and its students have no access to state funding, subsidies or preferential operating conditions, there is still a significant need that can be met with a more open approach to what private higher education can offer.
As noted in the report, there are four requirements for improved private provider involvement, which would be applicable to the current situation in South Africa: affordability, accessibility, appropriateness and accreditation
Regulation in South Africa has very effectively addressed the latter two, with rigorous accreditation processes including international comparisons and requiring institutions to consult with employers in the development of qualifications.  The second issue, accessibility, is perhaps more easily addressed by the private than the public sector, with smaller campuses with lower enrolments being viable in several smaller urban centres.   However in South Africa, affordability impedes access and one cannot consider access without focusing on the student support needed to achieve success.
Affordability is therefore the key challenge to growth generally but to individual access in particular. In the absence of any form of access to student financial aid or institutional subsidy, private institutions are forced to charge fees that fully recoup the cost of providing the education and cover the associated risks and costs. Inevitably, this results in fees higher than those charged by public providers and the resultant challenges of accessibility.  
It is therefore vital, when strategy is considered to improve access to education in SA, that the matter of financial support to private students and institutions starts to feature on the agenda. This form of support does not have to be a direct drain on the fiscus and can include less direct systems such as differentiated tax systems or voucher systems for student financial aid or rebates on rates or public private partnerships in a range of forms.  In the meantime, when assessing affordability, prospective students will be well served to take into account success rates and employability of graduates, as it may well be that what looks more expensive on first assessment is a good return on the individual investment in the long run. 
Dr Coughlan is the Director of the Independent Institute of Education, which is responsible for the academic leadership and governance of education and training on more than 20 registered higher education campuses in SA, welcoming more than 5 000 new students annually.