higher education XXX.   Picture: THINKSTOCK

THERE are strong indications that demand for higher education is outstripping supply. In January, Gloria Sekwena died and at least 20 other people were seriously injured when about 5,000 people stampeded in a desperate attempt to register at the last minute with the University of Johannesburg. The university received more than 85,000 applications for fewer than 12,000 places last year.

Young people’s determination to get into tertiary institutions is well founded. For those who pass matric, obtaining some form of tertiary education increases their likelihood of finding a job by 100%.

Expanding the size, quality and diversity of post-school education in SA is vitally important. Without this, it is hard to see how we can meet critical national goals. Growing the economy, developing a trained public service, encouraging business expansion, reducing unemployment and strengthening the home-grown supply of well-trained teachers all depend on access to tertiary education and its quality. How we achieve this requires investigation and debate, a process the government is currently leading.

The green paper on post-school education and training, released in February, sets out the government’s intention to expand and improve the tertiary education sector. The aim is to raise enrolments from the current 900,000 to 1, 5-million by 2030. This will lead to an increase in the higher education participation rate of 18-to 24-year-olds from 16% to 23%. It could very well be beyond the capacity of the public sector to meet the rapidly expanding demand for higher education on its own. Despite the government spending R1.5bn on upgrading further education and training colleges between 2006 and 2008, the college sector continues to languish — poor pass rates, poor planning, and financial mismanagement. According to the green paper, "the biggest problem facing the post-school system as a whole is the weakness and small size of the college sector".

The green paper recognises that the private sector has a role to play in tertiary sector expansion. The government intends to get a better understanding of the number and quality of existing private providers by improving "data collection", and will then develop a "nuanced strategy" to work with private providers to strengthen and expand provision. Hopefully this will be undertaken speedily and with an enthusiastic approach to what is possible through market forces.

SA can learn from other countries that have expanded access to higher education. One such is Brazil. Claudio de Moura Castro, the former director of the Brazilian government’s agency for post-graduate education, visited SA recently and described the role of the private sector in the expansion of Brazilian higher education.

Brazilian higher education, while starting from a very low base, has produced numerous successes. Initially, the government sector expanded rapidly, and generally delivered quality university education, although the quality was variable.

In the 1990s, enrolment in secondary education tripled. When these students graduated and expected to find places for further study, the department of education faced the prospect of tripling its budget to meet the demand through additional public universities. This forced a reluctant ministry to ease restrictions on the private sector.

Once the government improved the regulatory environment — from impossibly restrictive to tolerable — the private sector expanded rapidly and made a major contribution to expanding post-schooling access in Brazil. Contrary to the fears of many Brazilian officials and experts, private providers have not lowered the standard of education. While there is also variability across private institutions, private students fared as well as public students in assessments and the majority of the best 100 institutions are now private.

The private sector in Brazil has been innovative in developing new educational products and institutional forms. Companies have seen business opportunities and, as a result, have developed more effective teaching materials, used TV programmes to enhance skills development and set up large education chains that exploit economies of scale. The Brazilian experience suggests there is much to gain and little to fear from making the post-schooling regulatory environment accessible to private providers, including those that are for-profit.

A remarkable difference between Brazil and SA is the extent to which Brazilian policies have created a large supply of postgraduates willing to teach in an expanding higher education sector. This spare capacity does not exist in SA. The shortage may constrain the ability of private providers to expand as rapidly as they did in Brazil unless steps are taken to fill the gap.

At present, only 9% of the people teaching in SA’s private higher education institutions have a doctorate and this clearly has to change. In the short term, SA should make its skilled immigration policy more liberal (in word and deed) and entice the expertise we need for rapid expansion and quality teaching. The prolonged financial crisis in Europe and the prospect of low growth for many years to come provide an unprecedented opportunity for SA to recruit skills quickly.

One of the most interesting initiatives of the Brazilian government is the 60-year-old programme of sending thousands of bright young people to study abroad at leading universities. As nearly all of them came home with a world-class education and global experience, this suggests itself as a policy that could fairly quickly increase the number of highly skilled and internationally competitive people in SA. However, there are a number of challenges that have to be overcome first. Apart from logistical issues, the policy will work only if students are selected on merit, with an emphasis on the right areas of study (without being too narrow), and if graduates return to work in SA.

This happens in Brazil, but given SA’s continuing "brain drain", consideration will need to be given to how graduates can be encouraged to return to this country.

The increasing demand for post-school education and training in SA must be met. It is in the country’s interests to ensure that quality institutions expand and that new ones emerge speedily. This will not be an easy task for a public sector already struggling on a number of fronts with respect to education. Brazil’s recent history illustrates the important role of nonstate institutions in expanding a country’s capacity.

Private institutions could play a major role in providing access to education and training, especially for those who do not qualify for entry into leading universities. For this to happen at the speed and scale that is required, SA’s current regulatory environment and negative presumptions about private provision will need to change. It is vital that the rules and regulations affecting both public and private institutions lead to "level playing fields" and that financial assistance to students is as effective and accessible as possible and does not differentiate between the two kinds of institutions.

Brazil’s achievements in higher education are worthy of further consideration and an investigation into how these can best be adapted for SA’s circumstances.

Bernstein is executive director of the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE). This article is based on a new CDE report, Public Reform and Private Expansion: the development of higher education in Brazil.