Choosing the place where you will spend the next 3 or 4 years is a big deal, and deserves some serious thought. There are 11 traditional academic universities, 6 universities of technology, and 6 mixed or comprehensive universities in South Africa (see list of universities or short summary of each university). And those are only the public or state-funded universities. There are many more private institutions too. So how do you make the decision? Eish!
The more research you do the more likely you are to know what you’re heading into and the less risk you have of regretting your choice later. So well done on coming here and taking the first step!
It is of course important to first figure out what you are looking for. What are the most important aspects to you when picking a university? Is it location? Is it proven excellence in the subject you want to study? Is it an active extra-curricular programme, with lots of sports teams, clubs and societies? Is it a guarantee of employability after your degree? Or is it the affordability of the programme?
Is all of this becoming a bit overwhelming? Read on for five questions that will help you figure which institution is right for you.
Technical or academic?
Are you more a thinker or a doer? Do you enjoy abstract conversations about “higher grade” things, or are you the type who likes to stop talking and just get your hands dirty? Of course, the academic institutions (think UCT, Wits, UKZN, UFS, etc.) are more prestigious, and they look better on your cv, but if it’s employability and a better chance of a job after studying that you’re after, it may be a better decision for you to go the technical route (CPUT, DUT, VUT, TUT, etc.). You can study subjects such as Tourism, Fashion, Hospitality or Nursing, which traditional academic universities don’t offer. Even in the subjects they share with traditional academic universities, technical universities will offer a more practical, nitty-gritty approach to the subject that will prepare you well for the world of work.
But if you love reading, debating theories, analysing things from all angles, pushing the boundaries of scientific discovery and/or putting forth an original argument in a discursive essay, then the academic path is definitely for you. Many people would say that it’s easier to reach the very high up positions in any career if you have a degree from a traditional academic university. If you’re unsure, or both academic and technical appeal to you, you could consider taking courses on both sides at a comprehensive university (UJ, NMMU, UNISA, etc.)
Which is best for what you want to study?
When you’ve decided on what it is you want to study, whether it’s Law, or Social Science, or Accounting, or Business, it would be a good idea to ask around which university is best for that course of study. Ask your teachers, or professionals who you know who work in a related fields. Don’t be shy to even ask strangers you’ve just met. Most people are willing to help young people if they can.
Certain universities are ‘known’ for certain things. If you want to study Journalism, for instance, most people will tell you to study at Rhodes University. The University of Pretoria (UP) is the only place in South Africa that offers Veterinary Science, and the University of the Free State (UFS) is the only place you can study Disaster Management. Almost every university has a Computer Science or IT department, but did you know that the University of the Western Cape (UWC) is dedicated to the research and development of free and open-source software? It also has the largest dental school in Africa. Likewise, the University of Cape Town (UCT) boasts of the best Sports Management diploma in the world.
However, with most subjects (Commerce, Law, Medicine, Engineering, Science, Humanities, Education), you will find that the best is likely to be found at the biggest and most well-known: UCT, Wits, Stellenbosch, UKZN and UP. They have the most money, and so often have the best teaching to offer. But don’t get caught up in name brands. A Law degree from a lesser known and smaller university could be cheaper. There could be less competition for entry and bursaries, and there could be a better student-staff ratio, which means more individual attention and support.
What’s your language preference?
Most universities in South Africa use English as the language of instruction and assessment. However, some universities also offer classes in Afrikaans. UFS and UP offer classes in both English and Afrikaans. At Stellenbosch, teaching is done mostly in Afrikaans, although students are allowed to submit assignments in English. North West University has multilingualism as a core value, and offers interpreting and language services in order to deliver this.
Stay or go?
Are you fortunate enough to live near a university and so have the option of staying in your hometown? If so, then you have a decision to make.
Staying at home and commuting to campus every day is cheaper. You don’t have to worry about accommodation fees or feeding yourself thanks to Mom’s (or Dad’s, or Grandma’s, etc.) home cooking. Washing and ironing gets done the way it’s always been done. And the fight for the tv remote is only between you and your siblings, and not with an entire campus residence.
However, when it comes to crunch-time, there are often more distractions at home. It’s easier to study at the library till late into the night if you live on campus. Also: your parents are at home, and usually that means curfews, sharing in the household chores, and them worrying about you all night every time you decide to go partying.
When you decide to study away from home, you are on your own, and will discover what it’s like to be free of parental constraints for the first time. You make your own decisions about what to eat, what to do and where to go. Whereas going to a university in your hometown means you mostly stick with your high school friends, moving away means you meet all kinds of new people from all over the country.
However, moving away is much more expensive. Often university residence accommodation fees are more expensive than the tuition itself. And living away from home comes with great responsibility. As great as partying is (and there will be partying), it’s important to remember why you’re at university in the first place, which is harder to do when you don’t have parents around to remind you. You also have to sort out all your own problems: if you get sick, you have to take yourself to the doctor, if you fail your driver’s license test, it’s up to you to haul yourself back to the traffic department to make the next test booking. You do a lot of growing up when you move away from home.
Only you can know which is best for you. It takes a strong, independent and responsible nature to leave home and finish a degree. Many young people leave home only to be miserable and return within the first year, or go completely off the rails and never finish their degree. If you have doubts, discuss it with your parents, and with people who know you and/or know what it’s like to study away from home.
What can you afford?
Beyond decisions about whether to pay for accommodation or not is the question of tuition fees. Certain courses are cheaper at certain universities, sometimes significantly so. For instance, a MBChB (the degree to become a medical doctor) is R52,000 per year at UCT, but only R36 210 per year at UFS. That’s over R15,000 difference per year, and for a degree that lasts five or six years, that can really add up.
In general, technical universities tend to be less expensive than traditional academic ones, and the more well-known universities in the big cities are more expensive than those that are lesser known and more remote. Some universities charge a set amount for each degree, and others expect you to pay per course, so it is up to you to figure out how much it will cost you for the courses you intend to take and make the comparison between universities.
Speak to your parents or the person who is helping you to pay about what the best option is in terms of affordability. If you’re planning on taking a loan, think about the financial implications of taking a larger loan. Big student loans can be a heavy burden later on when you’re starting a career. Investigate which universities have specific scholarships or bursaries for the subjects you would like to take, and make sure you apply to those universities as well as for the bursaries themselves.
Ok, so what next?
Once you know what you’re looking for, with a little web research you’ll be able to find those universities which satisfy most of your criteria. Most universities publish a book filled with information about their courses and life on campus called a prospectus, which you can download or request to be mailed to your home address. If you can, try and visit a university Open Day to get a feel for what life on campus is like.
Now that you’ve done your homework and have a clearer idea of where you’d like to be (and where you wouldn’t), make a shortlist of your 5 favourite universities. Apply to the two at the top of the list, and number 4. Why number 4? Because chances are that your top two are a lot of people’s top two, and competition will be tight to get in. Everyone needs a backup. It’s better to do your first year at another university and then transfer to the one you really want to be at, than waste a year at home because you didn’t get accepted anywhere.
It’s important to know yourself, your capabilities, your strengths and weaknesses. If you know you’ll miss your family too much, don’t leave home. If you know you have a problem with partying instead of studying, don’t go to a university known for their drinking culture. And be realistic. Applying to the country’s best medical school when you have D’s and E’s for Maths and Science is not going to work. Look at other options, such as nursing or medical technology instead.
Having said all that, have the courage to take a chance and push yourself a bit. Resist the temptation to take the safe route and go where your friends are going. Your student years are times of adventure and discovery, meeting new people and going out of your comfort zone. Go out there, work hard, and have fun! These may be the best years of your life.
Some useful websites: