Major survey of international students in South Africa

The first major study of international students in South Africa has found pull factors to be affordable fees, government subsidies for students from the region, proximity to home and cost of living, the strong reputation of higher education and currency of its qualifications, according to the survey’s authors professors Jenny J Lee and Chika Sehoole.

These are among many ‘pull’ factors mentioned by nearly 1,700 students surveyed, while aspects such as accommodation difficulties, language, lack of funding opportunities, support and adjustment challenges, lack of South African friends and sometimes xenophobic attitudes towards African students were among obstacles international students articulated.

The study was presented at an International Education Association of South Africa, IEASA, conference held in Johannesburg from 20-23 August and titled “The Internationalisation of Higher Education in a World of Geo-political Reorganisation”.

There were two presentations by Lee of the University of Arizona in the United States, who is currently a Fulbright scholar based at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, and Sehoole of the University of Pretoria, an education expert who also chairs the board of the African Network for the Internationalisation of Education, ANIE, based in Kenya.

One presentation looked at international students in South Africa’s motivations and aspirations, and the other at their experiences in the country and its universities.

“We’re both interested in regional mobility in the global South, and looking at emerging economies as hosts for international students. This was the first comprehensive study of student mobility in South Africa,” Lee told University World News.

“We wanted to understand the role this country is playing in preparing – particularly African – leaders, given the high proportion of students coming from the Southern African Development Community [SADC] and Africa.”

Sehoole, who has written widely on internationalisation and student mobility, said an important finding came out of a question about what students’ plans were. “There were a number who were talking about looking for jobs, not necessarily in South Africa but they’re going back home,” he told University World News.

“Which speaks to the role South Africa is playing in building human capital on the continent and also contributing to development in the regions the students are drawn from.”

The survey

Some 10 years ago, Lee developed a survey instrument in the United States and she has since used it in Mexico and South Korea. “So it has been developed over time, and with Chika’s help adapted to the South African context.”

The survey covered seven public universities in Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Gauteng provinces. There were 1,682 student respondents, and interviews were conducted at five universities with 50 respondents.

A call was made at the last IEASA conference, explaining the survey framework. Universities that participated did so because people at the conference responded with interest.

The survey was conducted earlier this year, with the data just collected and analysis started. Lee described it as a partnership with the seven universities, who distributed survey to their international students, who then completed it.

“In exchange, the institutions will have a very comprehensive report that they can use for their own purposes – recruitment, marketing and student services. So we wanted this to be a service for institutions, but also to help us better understand what’s happening in the country regarding international students.

“We anticipate continuing and broadening participation this upcoming year, as more institutions become aware of the findings that we’ve gathered,” said Lee.

Among the students surveyed, 52% were female and 79% were from Africa, 8% each were from Europe and North America, 4% were from Asia and 1% from elsewhere.

The students were spread across a range of fields, and 40% were studying for a bachelor degree, 10% for an honours, 23% for a masters, 19% for a PhD and 1% were doing postdoctoral research. Only 4% were on exchange or semester study abroad, and 4% ‘other’.

According to the just-published edition of Study South Africa, an annual publication of IEASA, the number of international students has “grown dramatically” since 1994, the year the country achieved democracy, from 12,600 to 72,875 in 2012.

“Since 2007, the average growth rate of international students has been 4.4% per annum compared to the national average of 5.47%.” While only contact students are reflected, IEASA found, international student numbers are inflated by a large number of distance students studying within South Africa – some 32,500.

Pull factors

Mostly, said Sehoole, international students came to South Africa looking for better study opportunities and for economic reasons.

The primary economic reason was affordable fees compared to the United States and United Kingdom. Another important factor was the SADC protocol – under which regional students pay the same fees as local students and are subsidised by the South African government.

Also mentioned were proximity to home and the cost of living, bursary and scholarship requirements, future job prospects and the search for better living conditions.

Major academic reasons were the reputation of the South African higher education system, the ‘currency’ of South African qualifications, flexible admission policies, the lack of the preferred course in the home country, a stable and peaceful academic environment and diversification of the academic experience.

Political reasons were instability at home but stability in South Africa, and waiving visa requirements, while social and cultural factors were parents and partners working in South Africa, the directive of a guardian, and “study and understanding of foreign languages and culture”.

Students listed primary reasons for choosing a particular university as the fee structure, parental or sponsor preference, the institution’s reputation in the discipline to be studied, educational quality and the availability of supervision and expertise.

Also mentioned were proximity to the place of residence, favourable climatic conditions, family influence and historical factors and institutional culture.

Interestingly, said Sehoole, most international students were in the sciences. “These students come to South Africa to do courses which are not necessarily available in their countries.”

“One of the things they indicate is that they came because of the reputation of the South African higher education system and the quality available at the specific institutions they chose to study at.”

There were also positive responses regarding the quality of education received. “Students speak highly about the fact that they come out with skills – critical thinking skills, computer literacy and so on – that they value.

“For me, the underlying message coming out of the survey is a vote of confidence, based on empirical evidence from the survey, for the quality of South African higher education and the high regard international students have for it. That is substantiated by responses to a number of questions posed.”


As mentioned, international students listed challenges of studying in South Africa as including accommodation, financial pressures, language, support and adjustment challenges, lack of local friends and xenophobia. In many cases, international students stuck together – as happens in some other countries.

Among other things, the survey asked international students how they felt they were treated compared to local students. The great majority (1,329) said classmates treated them ‘about the same’ and this was the case even more for professors (1,460). Students were also treated the same by administrative and other people in the university.

Off-campus, though, was different, with only 126 students feeling they were treated better because of being foreign and the rest evenly split between being treated ‘about the same’ or worse.

Some respondents said that international students from outside and inside Africa were treated differently, with the former treated better. One student said: “It seems an average South African hates a foreigner.”

Lee told University World News: “There is a general perception among African students that they are here to take away jobs, take away spaces. The majority are interested in going back home but there is a prevailing stereotype that students from neighbouring countries are here to take away from locals, which is not at all their intention.

“This is unlike the stereotypes of students from Europe or North America. They report feeling much more welcome. I think our findings speak to the need to demystify ideas that are not correct.”

The biggest areas of challenge were regarding accommodation and finances, Lee said. “There is another stereotype that international students are coming in with a lot of money to spend.

“Many landlords require them to pay the entire year’s worth of rent in advance. There are medical insurance costs. This is an enormous burden for international students financially, particularly those from less developed countries.

“International students in universities are still fairly new, and the demand is outpacing the resources that are being allocated. Lack of accommodation is by far the greatest challenge.”

Sehoole added that when looking at the expectations made regarding international students in terms of fees, accommodation and insurance – which are requirements for a visa – “it appears that higher education in South Africa is not necessarily for the poor. Because if you are poor, you cannot afford all that.”

Students were asked how they would recommend that South Africa and its universities could improve the international student experience.

They highlighted accommodation, visa and fee support, improved cultural awareness among staff, more social interaction opportunities, the use of only the English language in class – at some universities, lecturers conversed in Afrikaans or other languages not understood by students – internship support and more collaboration among universities.

There were definite cultural challenges, as everywhere for international students, in some instances quite subtle. One white female foreign student, for instance, mentioned that black South Africans would try to get her to pay more than black people because she was white. Another foreign student told the researchers:

“I am a gay, white male who is also agnostic. While being gay in South Africa is protected, gay life here is quite different from home. It is quite closeted here. Race is a very complex issue… as for religion, South Africans are quite religious. I often feel in the closet about telling people that I am agnostic, out of fear of being ostracised.”

Going forward

The South African government’s major contribution to internationalisation of higher education was the SADC protocol committing states to supporting students from across the region and achieving 5% of international students among their student populations.

The government is in the process of developing an internationalisation policy, but it has been up to universities themselves and IEASA to promote internationalisation.

IEASA believes that with a large foreign student population achieved, internationalisation at home must be the greater priority for South African institutions, “especially given the limited higher education opportunities in our neighbouring countries”.

Regarding the survey, Sehoole said while it was currently a collaboration between the two academics, “as the work grows we will need to find ways of institutionalizing it. We also want to expand, given what we have found.

“I want to take the survey to the rest of the continent via ANIE. It would be interesting to find out about the experiences of international students outside South Africa, and see whether they are different in other African countries.”

Lee said she was also working with CONAHEC – the Consortium for North American Higher Education Collaboration – to develop the same survey instrument to look at international students in that region. “So that’s where were are looking to further expand in the global South.”

This article was written by Karen MacGregor and was originally published on University World News. Home page photo by Ian Barbour/ Flickr Commons.


Tags: , , ,


Share this Post