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Higher Education in South Africa: Innovations and Determined Students

In January of this year, a fatal stampede occurred at the University of Johannesburg while students and parents waited at the University’s gates, anxious to secure one of several hundred last-chance places. The stampede left one dead and several injured, and is a tragedy emblematic of the societal difficulties engendered by lack of access to education in South Africa. Last year, About 85,000 students had applied for the roughly 11,000 seats available at the University of Johannesburg; 20,000 more than the previous year. While access to education is tough to come by, there are organisations in South Africa working to meet the demand for education shown by the country’s youth, and students determined to succeed in getting their education.

Nokuthula, a student at the Maharishi Institute, Johannesburg

Imagine you are a young girl from a poor background in South Africa: according to Trevor Manuel’s YouTube video, Planning for Thandi’s Future, you have about a 4% chance of getting into university. Around 75% of your class at kindergarten will not achieve a high school diploma. Of those who do graduate from high school, it’s tough to get access to university places, and finding a way to finance your education is another hurdle. Further, the opportunity cost of spending four years at school instead of looking for work immediately upon graduation prevents many smart, ambitious kids from pursuing higher education.

This leaves children in South Africa with a 4% chance of entering university. Given the high dropout rates, some statistics estimate that only 1 in 100 Grade Ones in South Africa will go on to graduate from college.  If you’re from a high-income country however, your chances are more like 70%- and your education will cost significantly less. (In the US, the average annual university cost as a percentage of per capita income is between 20 and 65%, varying between public and private universities. In Africa, the average figure is 170%.)

Mamello, a student at the Maharishi Institute

In South Africa,

7% of people have a graduate degree or diploma
95% of university graduates are employed, and graduates contribute 65% of GDP (a growing number)


55% of people who have only a high school degree are employed
45% of people who do not have a high school degree are employed
Overall, unemployment is at 25%
and 49% of South Africans live on 2$ or less per day.

Against this backdrop, it’s easy to see the value add of education, and understand the events that led to the tragedy at the University of Johannesburg earlier this year. While access to it remains scarce, I’ve been impressed by some of the organisations working to improve access to tertiary education in South Africa, and by the dynamism and commitment shown by some of the students I have met.

Dimakatso, studying for her BBA at Maharishi

Maharishi Institute, for instance, is an institution that provides distance learning and business degrees through the Maharishi University of Management in the US. It works to provide students with real world skills which will be valuable to them in the marketplace upon graduation, through providing access to internships and skills-based business classes. MI was born out of non-profit educational institution Community and Individual Development Association, which offers almost-free business degrees to disadvantaged young people. CIDA now has around 5,000 graduates and sponsors include Dell, JPMorgan, Sir Richard Branson and Oprah Winfrey.

The courtyard at Maharishi, at lunch hour

What has struck me most has been the enthusiasm and ambition which the students bring to their studies at Maharishi. Many of the students come from families where few or no members are working; some spend up to 800R/month (100$) to come to school due to high transport costs; others have their own children whom they must be apart from for up to 12 hours a day in order to attend school. Degrees at MI can take up to five years, which creates a significant opportunity cost for the students, and many face peer pressure to focus on job-hunting instead of studying. Yet, they are resolute and determined to get their degrees, a quality which I’ve found overwhelmingly impressive.

Portia and Mamello in English class

What’s more, having interviewed some of the students, a recurring theme in their ambitions is their desire to give back to the community upon graduation. The vast majority of them have told me that their ultimate ambitions involve, among other things, building a business to provide scholarships for disadvantaged children to attend university; building a hospital in their local area; starting local schools; and helping young girls to develop confidence and achieve their dreams. The value that these students place on education is inspiring and highly commendable, and I couldn’t be more honoured to get to work with them.

Olivia is a Fellow in KF18, serving in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has now seen more zebras than she can count. Want to lend to a student and help finance their education? Check out all Kiva’s education loans, here

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