South Africa is to crack down on private higher education universities and colleges that fail to register. Hundreds have sprung up in recent years and are training as many as 800,000 people.
While many are solid institutions offering sound degrees and diplomas, others are believed to be fly-by-night operators cashing in on a nationwide craving for education.
The 1997 higher education act requires private institutions - including foreign universities - to register with the department of education. The department is calling for applications for registration by the end of March. Any illegal institution discovered after December 31 will be shut down.
The registrar will grant official status once institutions meet two main criteria: an auditor's statement confirming that the institution is financially viable, and academic accreditation.
So far, 217 institutions have applied to the South African Qualifications Authority, which is the temporary accrediting body until the new Council for Higher Education takes over quality assurance. Institutions will be granted (two-year) preliminary accreditation for CHE to confirm.
Fourteen are in the process of being accredited. One is Britain's De Montfort University. Gail Elliott, SAQA's head of quality assurance, said:
"There has been a flood of applications."
The government has no idea how many private institutions there are, she said. "We will be relying on the public to help us find illegal institutions."
Many people check with the department on the status of institutions before enrolling on courses: those that are not listed as registered will be investigated.
After notifying SAQA of their intention to apply for accreditation, institutions must conduct a quality assurance evaluation, using a document developed by SAQA, the Council for Technikon Education (Sertec) and the Quality Promotions Unit of the South African Universities Vice-Chancellors' Association.
The evaluation is forwarded to Sertec or the Quality Promotions Unit for an external evaluation of the institution's self-review. Their recommendation then goes to all three organisations to decide.
So far two institutions have completed the process, Ms Elliott confirmed - one was granted accreditation, the other refused.