Britain's De Montfort University has become the first registered private higher education institution in South Africa as the country tries to formalise its fast-growing private sector under new laws.
De Montfort and a Cape Town fashion college are the only two institutions officially recognised, according to the education department's registrar of higher education. Several others, including the University of Wales, have applications in the pipeline and expect to be registered shortly.
Hundreds of private institutions are operating in South Africa in response to a huge demand for education, perceptions of falling quality in the state sector and, in the case of foreign institutions, a desire for internationally recognised degrees.
Most private institutions are genuine and offer sound qualifications. But there are some fly-by-night operators that the government wants to stop: private institutions not registered by December will be declared illegal and could be closed. Also, the education department has little idea of what goes on in the private sector and no way of ensuring standards.
These problems are being tackled via the 1997 higher education act, which requires private institutions to be accredited by the South African Qualifications Authority and then registered to gain official standing.
Michael Brown, De Montfort's pro vice-chancellor, believes this is key to improving higher education standards and "to avoiding being taken over by cowboys - local or foreign". As soon as SAQA was set up, the university sought accreditation and registration for the small, non-profit-making business school it launched as a campus in Sandton, Johannesburg, in the mid-1990s.
The De Montfort school was the first to have its programmes accredited and, within 24 hours of SAQA approval, became the first to be registered.
"We are not trying to compete, but to provide something a bit different from the often excellent products offered by local universities," Professor Brown said. The MBA De Montfort offers is delivered by South African staff. "It is exactly the same standard as in the United Kingdom, but it includes local content." The programme has been accredited by the pan-European Association of MBAs, joining only of 3 UK MBAs with AMBA accreditation.
There is one looming problem in formalising South Africa's private sector - parts of the process are painfully slow. For instance, while 153 institutions have formally applied for accreditation, only 13 have received it, a spokesperson for SAQA told The THES last week.