Since the beginning of the #Feesmustfall Campaign last year, we’ve watched South African universities struggle to keep order on their campuses and their academic calendars on track. A question that has been on the minds of many middle to upper class parents is “Should I be thinking about sending my child to university overseas?”

In fact, we first looked at it seriously when a client came to us a few weeks ago and said: “It seems like things are so uncertain in South Africa. How much do I need to put away for my 10-year-old to go to university overseas?” It was a big question…not just like asking how much do I need to save for an overseas holiday!

So, we started researching. We looked at the cost of a first year BCom degree at three top universities here in South Africa – UCT, Wits and Stellenbosch – vs. that for non-European residents at three prestigious UK universities: Edinburgh, Oxford and London School of Economics. In addition to academic fees, we factored in residence fees with meals and spending money. What we found was eye opening: that the cost of studying in a major tertiary university overseas was way beyond the means of at least 99% of South Africans (see the chart below).

From these figures, we can deduct that only a small minority of South Africans can afford to pay the minimum of roughly R575 000 per year tuition to earn a four-year degree – a fee that does not include any travel costs or visas. Multiply this by four years and two children, and you’re looking at R4.6 million of your discretionary after tax money. And that’s based on current exchange rates of 17 rand to the pound. If the rates go up to 18.98, you’d be paying R5.1 million; or up to 24 to 1, and you’ll have spent R6.5 million. Not to mention increases in tuition fees, which is bound to happen. Okay these figures are enough to cause shallow breathing.

You can see that the alternative to studying in South Africa is not a viable alternative for the majority of us. While these costs are prohibitive, even those of lesser ranked foreign universities are very high. So, what does this mean for us, as responsible parents and grandparents who want the best education for our children? Budding businesses are already seizing the opportunity to place our matriculants in overseas universities for significantly less than above. But, we must be careful in making these decisions about less recognised universities, that they are indeed sufficient for the needs of our children.

So what do we do? Firstly, we need to accept that this is a transitional moment in South African history, and one which particularly tugs at our emotions. Most of us have happy memories of our varsity years, however, we need to understand that the way our kids will experience varsity may well be very different from our own experiences; this is understandably so in post-apartheid South Africa.

It’s a complex situation, but many of the issues surrounding fees and accessibility to university are not only affecting South Africa, nor are we the only country that has seen protests. In recent years, students in the UK, US and other countries have protested, although not to the extent of South Africa. We believe that we’re going to see a global disruption in the entire concept of university, just like we have seen in other areas, such as taxis (Uber) and hotels (Air B&B). There will be new innovations in education that will, in part, fill in some of the gaps, making tertiary education significantly lower in cost.

It’s also possible that our universities will evolve and reorganise themselves, cutting staff and whittling down to the best lecturers. Why and how? Well think about it, a superb lecturer in a recording studio and you’ve got podcasts that can educate the masses. Instead of losing students, you’d have the potential to gain more, and even export education to wealthier countries. Foreign students paying in their own currency could be a boon to our universities.

What about the campuses? For science, engineering and medicine, you need labs? The labs at UCT could be used for its own students by day, and at night, for example, by other institutions, who are paying rent.
These ideas may sound radical, and some not very appealing, like correspondence learning. True learning for many of us requires interaction, and this begs the questions: will our children be mature enough to study this way, and will they experience adequate networking and growth opportunities, not to mention the people, hobbies and clubs that come with a traditional university experience?

Yet, if we as parents are going to create the best opportunities for learning for our children, we must quickly grasp the fact that things are going to change.

We are currently experiencing many history-making moments in South Africa. For tertiary education, these are amongst the biggest ever. We have great tertiary institutions, which we cannot afford to lose, or even to let their standards drop. If we do, we’ll never recover them. Yet, at the same time, it’s critical that we remain both flexible and considerate as we look at the road ahead: this is the only way to make this situation work for our families and for our country.

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