What foreign students can learn about studying in S Africa

24 Jan

By Stephen Twinoburyo

South Africa has become a destination of choice for many African students wishing to pursue tertiary education. The universities in the country also attract students from as far as Europe and North America. For African students, South Africa has particular advantages in that the students are able to attain world-class education, usually at a cheaper cost than they would ordinarily have got overseas, and still have a sense of African belonging.

South Africa has 17 public universities, the top 8 in descending order being: University of Cape Town, University of Pretoria, Stellenbosch University (Cape Town), University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg), University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban), Rhodes University  (Grahamstown – Eastern Cape), University of South Africa (Pretoria – distance education) and University of the Western Cape (Cape Town). As can be seen, the top positions are dominated by universities in Gauteng and Western Cape provinces. These universities almost maintain the same positions in Africa.

Having studied at Makerere University and then two universities in South Africa, I have found that South African universities are far well facilitated and offer practical programmes. Most students are able to relate what they study to the environment around them. Besides, a lot of money is pumped into academic research. A lot of research that has been carried out by the universities has gone on to be used by the government and private sector outside the academic environment. Government departments (ministries) like Trade and Industry, Science and Technology, Minerals and Energy, National Treasury as well as other bodies like Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and National Research Foundation (NRF), work closely with the universities to tap into their resources. A lot of South Africa’s military technology has been developed in the CSIR laboratories. Financial institutions like banks too, collaborate with relevant university departments and tap into academic brains to aid their research and developments. This makes the academic programmes be tailored to the existing requirements in the practical world. South African academics and students have been able to produce some of the innovations and developments that have made the country prosper. The academics are not much separated from the world around and much that is applied in the real world, have academic grounding and precison.

These are all advantages Africa can tap into. Many African students have attended these universities, excelled and gone on to be employed in crucial sectors in the country. There are many Ugandans employed in top positions in vital areas of the country – both in government and private sectors. Some universities offer free PHD programmes. Prospective students can search the websites of these universities for information that may be of help to them. Most enquiries and applications can be done online.

Besides universities, there are 6 institutions known as Universities of Technology. These were formerly technical institutions (known then as technokons) but a few years ago, they were upgraded and turned into universities of technology. They are now able to offer undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. They are still though, undermined by their previous name tag and the fact that they catered mainly for black student. Previously, black students were not permitted to attend some of the top universities mentioned above. The top 3 universities still have an overwhelmingly white staff. Stellenbosch is still predominantly white both in staff and students.

What then are the advantages and challenges to foreign students of studying in South Africa? I spoke to two Ugandans in the academic field at two universities and they gave me the following tips and advice.

Professor Annet Oguttu, the first female professor at the University of South Africa’s college of law and first black woman to obtain a PHD in tax law at a South African university offers the advice that “studying in a foreign country is not easy and it is quite expensive. But furthering one’s studies is one of the best investments one can make for themselves. . If you have to make such a costly investment, then do it wisely. As much as is within your ability, invest yourself in the most marketable, rare and high demand courses out there.  The world has become a global village so go for courses that meet the demands of a globalised or international market. Seek career advice before you commence your studies. ” She also advises against mediocre mentality and says there are a lot of opportunities out there. “Time has come for this generation of African students to stop this ‘victim’ mentality that blames all our failures and inadequacies on our past history. Do not allow yourself to be a prisoner of your past”, she says.

Ms Olive Ayo Biraba, a PHD student in Education Technology at the University of Cape Town says the university has first-class facilities for study especially at undergraduate level, has a number of bookshops both in and around campus, has good physical and online library facilities, is well-located with minimum interruptions from the public, has good facilities for students with disabilities and has plenty of computer labs distributed all over campus and student residences. She however advises that Cape Town is a very expensive city, accommodation and transport can be a challenge if one lives outside students’ residences, there is a lot of home-sickness, junk-food may be the way to go, one may have to deal with segregation, and getting employment is not straight-forward. Foreign students are advised to have enough financial backing before heading for Cape Town and once in Cape Town, try campus accommodation first unless they have somebody outside to help, not team up with the wrong company, have support groups e.g church and other country mates and be security conscious at all times.

Of course foreign students need to adjust to the advanced life in South Africa and not forget the core purpose of being here. Some get taken up by the “marvels of life” in this country to the detriment of their studies. Life is pretty tough here when one runs out money and careful expenditure and budgeting are needed. It’s a pure capitalist world where everything depends on money and people to rescue somebody are few. Prospective students need to be advised that South Africa hardly has piece-jobs (kyeyo) like many of the overseas countries.

It’s always important to seek advice before students embark on a journey down south. Good advice can be obtained from the South African High Commission in Kampala, the Ugandan embassy in South Africa, the association of Ugandan Professionals in SA ( as well as the universities themselves. Students should at all costs avoid institutions that little is known about.

With the right attitude and determination, all possibilities are open. A lot that is learnt here can be used to develop many of our African countries if there is the right management.

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Posted by on January 24, 2011 in Stephen Twinoburyo's blogs


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