Why graduates are choosing to study in South Africa

More and more British students are heading south, lured by the warm climate and lower fees. David Shariatmadari talks to postgraduates who weren't deterred by the high levels of poverty and violent crime

"I live 10 minutes from the beach. It's stunning. The campus must be one of the most beautiful in the entire world. And the sun shines."

Putting the course, the cost and the quality of teaching aside for a moment, there's no reason why weather shouldn't be a factor in deciding where to take your Masters. For Isabella Dowden, who's in the second year of her MPhil at the University of Cape Town (UCT), living in a beautiful country like South Africa was part of the equation. At any rate, it's hard to imagine students lavishing this kind of praise on Essex, Hull or Bangor.

Dowden, now 25, had been won over to the idea of further study after a couple of years doing the nine to five. Like an increasing number of people her age, she decided to go overseas. UCT itself has seen an explosion in the number of British postgraduates, from just 11 in 1995 to 143 in 2005. A seasoned traveller, who'd spent time in Senegal as part of her BA at the London School of Economics, she was working in Johannesburg when it dawned on her that studying in South Africa was a possibility.

"I knew I wanted to do a Masters but I found I didn't want to move back home just then. A friend said, well, have you thought about doing one in South Africa? I started looking and discovered this one at the University of Cape Town on HIV and Aids in society. That was an area I was interested in and it just seemed to fit," she says. "I looked into the US, but it was too much money."

Money was also a consideration for James Barrett, who did an MA in politics at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in 2004. "Fees are a lot lower than for the same course in the UK," he says. "I also received a bursary in exchange for tutoring first-year students which made it more feasible than doing an MA back home where bursaries are hard to find."

At the older universities tuition fees hover around a few thousand pounds but levels vary across degree type and institution. An MA at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, for example, will set international students back $5,500 (£3,100) for a year's full-time study.

Comparatively cheap course fees and the low cost of living are powerful incentives. But there are other reasons why the country has an irresistible pull, albeit for the kind of scholars who are adventurous enough to consider going abroad in the first place. For non-linguists it offers the advantage of an English-language teaching environment. Despite the prevalence of Afrikaans and Bantu languages, English is the medium of instruction in most of South Africa's public universities. Unlike countries such as Nigeria, Ghana or Kenya where English is also widely spoken, South Africa hosts several internationally recognised institutions where you can find what is widely touted as the best teaching and research on the continent.

This doesn't mean that it's all going to be plain sailing. The change in pace and style from bachelor's to Masters, disconcerting enough, can only be magnified in the context of adapting to life in a foreign country. The attitudes and expectations of teachers are likely to be subtly different, and would-be students need to be robust, independent and resourceful. "For some of my courses, there are lectures, but it seems strange to call them that. It's two hours of the teachers sitting there and slightly guiding the conversation, but you're very much left to yourself," says Dowden. "They're at a big disadvantage though, because they don't really have the technology. At the LSE they used PowerPoint, video projection and so on. There are far fewer resources here at UCT."

And what about outside the classroom? Can prospective students expect more of the booze-swilling, party-going culture they would have experienced as undergraduates back home? Evidently, they do things differently in South Africa, which, depending on your point of view, may come as a relief.

"Uni life in Jo'burg was a million miles from my experiences in the UK," says Barrett. "Students from townships tended to take their studies more seriously, which was understandable given the long struggle they've had for access to services such as education."

"Although the university was alive with clubs and societies, the place would often be deserted by evening with many students commuting long distances back home. Lunch was the time for activities and socialising and the drinking culture simply did not exist."

Everyday life in South Africa can also take a bit of getting used to. The country is still in a state of social and political transition, beset by high levels of HIV/Aids, poverty and unemployment. The spectre of crime looms large and concern for personal security is likely to put many off.

Between 2003 and 2004 the country saw 19,824 murders. Though significantly down from the recent high of 26,877 in 1995, this still represents a staggering contrast with Britain, where 756 people were killed in the 12 months up to April 2006.

"The terrifying thing about South Africa is that crime isn't just crime, it's violent crime. And that's the huge difference. If someone's going to break into your house they won't necessarily wait until you're out," says Dowden. "My alarm is usually on when I'm in the house, definitely when I go out and definitely when I go to sleep. I would never want to live here permanently. I don't regret having spent time in South Africa, I just never feel completely at ease."

Barrett strikes a more positive tone. "Once you know the rules of what you can and cannot do, life in South Africa - and in Jo'burg, which doesn't deserve its bad reputation - is relatively safe," he says. "During the year I spent there I experienced crime on two occasions. Both were petty theft and irritating, but they were not enough to deter me from enjoying all the great things the country has to offer."

Though perhaps not for the faint-hearted, studying in South Africa can be rewarding. Maybe it's just the place to spend a more grown-up kind of gap year.

'It's a fantastic place, you just have to make the most of it'

Anna Marriott , 28, did an MA in development studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, with the help of an award from the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission (CSC).

I'd done my BA in development studies with sociology at Leeds and after a few years in different jobs and a bit of travelling I decided I wanted to go back to university. I saw the advert for the CSC scholarship and applied to go to KwaZulu-Natal because it had a good reputation and strong links to the Institute of Development Studies in Sussex, where I was working at the time. I got the award, which was incredibly generous - it covered tuition fees, travel costs there and back and included a stipend for living expenses.

MAs in South Africa usually take about 18 months - that's a year's full-time teaching and coursework and around six months for the thesis. The academic year is different as well. It starts in January or February and there are two semesters, with a winter break in June. The quality of the teaching was good and the academics were close to the policymakers. They were really involved in government, and many of them had played a part in setting up the new policies after the end of apartheid.

I'd say the country's still very divided when it comes to race. You walk around campus and you can see very distinct groups of people and particular areas where different race groups hang out. That surprised me.

It's easy to be paranoid about crime. When you first arrive, people say, "Oh don't go here, don't go there." I used my common sense. There is a genuine problem with crime that you can't deny, but what happens with the white population is that they get terrified of going anywhere that's black dominated. I went downtown to clubs that were completely black and felt as safe as I did in white suburban areas.

My advice to anyone coming here to study is to really make the most of the country. Even within a few hours of Durban there's so much to do - it's a fantastic place for outdoors stuff. Try to do things off campus too, you can learn so much. I did a bit of voluntary work in an orphanage for kids affected by HIV/Aids.

All in all I had a fantastic year and a half, I made loads of new friends and I've got the skills I need to look for a good job in development. I found it really hard to leave.

For more information about CSC scholarships visit www.acu.ac.uk

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