South Africa Country Profile - Education System

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System Structure 

The education system in South Africa has been transformed since the abolition of apartheid, but this transformation has been slow - the South African primary and secondary education system is regarded as being of low standard and was listed in bottom place globally for maths and science by the World Economic Forum (2015). There remains a significant gap in education standards between rich and poor communities. Higher Education in South Africa, on the other hand, has seen heavy investment and now competes on the world stage.

South Africa has a three-tier education system of primary, secondary and further or higher education. The primary and secondary school sector is divided into; non fee- paying public schools, fee-paying public schools and private schools. Attendance at school compulsory for all children age 7-15. Lessons are taught in the official language of the province and learning English is mandatory.

Academic Year

The academic school year runs in four terms, from mid-January to early December. Students have ten days holiday at Easter, ten days in the spring term (September), 21 days in winter (May-June) and 40 days for Summer/Christmas (December-January). The university academic year is divided into two semesters, from February to June and July to November.

The school day starts at 8am and finishes at 1pm for primary school children and at 3pm for secondary school pupils.

Higher Education 

The South African government has made huge investment into developing their tertiary education sector in recent years, making universities more accessible to poorer students and significantly improving quality. South Africa has 26 publicly-funded universities, seven of which appear in the QS World University Rankings (the highest being the University of Cape Town, at 141st place). Universities are managed and funded by the Department of Higher Education and Training and are divided into three categories:

  • Traditional Universities: academic in nature
  • Technology Universities: vocational courses
  • Comprehensive universities: offering both types of course

Admission into university for South Africans is by completion of secondary school (matriculation) up to the age of 18. Non-South Africans can complete an assessment form on the Universities South Africa (formerly HESA) website ( to see if their qualifications are suitable.


South African universities are publicly-funded, but students are charged annual tuition fees. Fees vary widely between institutions and courses and international students are charged more, roughly between R75000 (£3556) for undergraduate and Honours degrees, and R47500 (£2251) for Master’s degrees. The South African government has a National Student Financial Aid scheme which distributes student loans and bursaries, but non-South Africans are very rarely eligible. However, some of the country's major banks offer international students loans to cover fees and living expenses at competitive rates. Some South African universities also offer their own bursary schemes and scholarships to international students so it is worth contacting the university to find out before applying.


There are a wide range of courses available at South African universities, with particular emphasis on medicine, engineering and research. A full-time undergraduate Bachelor’s degree takes three years to complete. After three years students can choose to graduate with a degree certificate or take a further year-long ‘Honours' course to gain a Bachelor’s degree with Honours. Postgraduate degrees take one to two years of study, depending on the course.


University research and development is considered vital, and more than half of Africa's top research universities are in South Africa, among them the University of Cape Town and the University of Witswaterand (known as ‘Wits’) in Johannesburg. The South African government has made significant investment into research and development in its higher education institutions, including the introduction of tax breaks to encourage private companies to partner with universities in research activities.  

Primary and Secondary Education 

Attendance at school in South Africa is compulsory from age 7 (grade 1) to age 15 (grade 9), although children are able to attend voluntarily from age 5 (grade 0 or reception). South African primary education begins at age 7 and ends around age 13. Secondary, or further education, is between the ages 14 and 18 (grades 8 -12). Students can choose to leave education in grade 9 or continue on to take the matriculation exam, which is necessary to gain entry into university. There are three types of school in South Africa:

  • Public non fee-paying schools: available in the poorest areas and completely subsidised by the government
  • Public fee-paying schools: subsidised by the government but parents also contribute an annual fee (around R25,000 - £1110 - per year)
  • Private (independent) fee-paying schools: privately owned schools, completely subsidised by fees (around R90,000 - £4257 - per year)

Primary and secondary education is overseen by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and each of the nine provinces have their own education departments and budgets. Lessons are taught in the official language of the province and class sizes range from 30 to 50 pupils in poorer areas.


Known as 'kindergarten' in South Africa, pre-school care is available for children aged 3 to 7. The kindergarten sector is made up of publicly-funded institutions, which are regulated by the Department of Basic Education, and private and church pre-schools. Fees are payable at both types of pre-school but are cheaper at public kindergartens. The South African government implement an Early Childhood Development (ECD) programme which aims to guide kindergartens in teaching young children and also to encourage more children into early years education.

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