Types of Educational Institutions in South Africa


There are many roads that lead to knowledge


I remember when I started looking at studying further, I was overwhelmed by all the study options and the different places I could study.

I began asking around, but it seemed that few people could explain the differences, so I took to the internet to try and get a better understanding!

Hopefully what I found will be helpful to you too! 

Learning can either be classroom-based, distance learning, or a mix of both

Classroom-based Learning

Classroom-based learning means that students go to class for set periods of time during the week (Monday-Friday). Colleges generally follow a school-like timetable which starts at 8 am and ends anytime from 2 pm. Universities and Universities of Technology have a more spread-out timetable; some days you will have class for a few hours, other times you’ll have only one class for the day.

Distance Learning

Distance learning means that you don’t go to face-to-face classes. Some institutions have some classroom-based tutorials, but this differs from institution to institution. Generally though, you would enrol online or go to an enrolment day; your books are sent to you, and you can study in your own time. Distance learning universities or colleges offer different forms of student support. Institutions like College SA hosts an online forum where students can communicate with each other and their tutors.


This is a combination of self-study and attending classes. Some institutions offer evening classes for 2-3 hours a night, on designated days of the week. Others offer Saturday tutorial classes. The rest of the time you are expected to study on your own.

In South Africa, education is divided into two categories - public and private

Public education means that the government funds it, and private education means that it doesn’t get any funding from the government.

Public TVET Colleges

Public Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges were established by the Department of Higher Education. These colleges were previously known as Further Education and Training colleges (FET) to train people in technical, as well as other vocational fields (a vocational field is a field of study that prepares you for a particular career). You can find TVET colleges in each of the nine provinces in South Africa. These colleges have various entry requirements, depending on what you would like to study. 

Most TVET colleges offer courses that form part of the NATED programme. This means that students study the theoretical component of a National Diploma in a certain career field, and then complete a practical component, i.e. work to gain experience. Each component is either 18/ 24 months.

TVET colleges offer a variety of courses: 

  • Technical Courses (Boilermaking, Welding, Fitting & Turning, Electrical, and Motor Mechanics)
  • Business Studies
  • Marketing
  • Beauty
  • Accounting
  • Human Resource Management

Public colleges offer both full-time and evening classes.

Students have the option to apply for government funding, like NSFAS (National Student Financial Aid Scheme) or pay for their own studies.

Public TVET colleges have different entry requirements. These colleges are particularly geared towards those that don’t necessarily have a traditional Matric.

Private Colleges

Private colleges are quite diverse. Some private colleges are registered as TVET colleges while others offer courses that are non-accredited, as well as certificate, diploma and degree courses.

Many private colleges cater for specific needs and are more specialised – i.e. they offer specific courses geared for a particular industry. For example, business colleges and media, film or advertising schools.

They offer many different course options like:

  • Short courses
  • 1-year programmes
  • 2-year programmes
  • Full certificate, diploma or degree programmes

There are different entry requirements, depending on your course of interest. Classes are full-time, part-time, or via distance learning. Some private colleges offer bursary schemes, whereas others offer payment plans.

University of Technology

Universities of Technology use to be called ‘technikons’. They mainly offer diploma and degree courses. They maintain a good balance between the theory and practical aspects of a subject.

Universities of Technology offer courses like:

  • Engineering
  • Marketing and Public Relations
  • Dramatic Arts and Film
  • Business

To study at a University of Technology, you need a Higher Certificate or Diploma Pass. Sometimes they recognise qualifications from TVET colleges, which means students can continue their studies at a University of Technology once they have completed an N6 Certificate at a TVET college.

Universities of Technology are mostly government funded and offer different forms of bursaries, loans and grants.


At a university, the primary focus is on studying the theory of a certain subject. Universities can either be private or funded by the government. The purpose of a university is to introduce students to academic enquiry, after which they can choose to find a job in a relevant field or continue studying.

Universities have different faculties:

  • Humanities
  • Business and Commerce
  • Science
  • Engineering
  • Health Sciences
  • Law

To study at a university, you need to achieve a Bachelors Pass in Matric. Each faculty or course has its individual entry requirements.

Universities offer different funding options like bursaries, loans and grants, but most require that you pay for your studies in the first semester of every year. 

The National Qualifications Framework (NQF)

The history of the NQF

South Africa had a massive problem at the end of Apartheid. The majority of the workforce was largely unskilled, or there were people with years of experience in a technical field, like boilermaking, but they had no formal qualification.

To fix this problem, the government set national standards for education, urged colleges to offer courses that combine practical experience with theoretical knowledge, and began recording students’ academic achievements on a national learners’ database. This means that there now is a way of proving your knowledge and skill to an employer, other than getting a university degree.

The government also introduced a system that records each level of education. This is a way of comparing courses from different colleges or universities and making sure that the courses meet the national standards for that particular level. The levels start at NQF level 3 (grade 9) and end at NQF level 10 (doctorate).


Phew! What a lot of information! Hopefully, you better understand the differences in further education in South Africa.

Remember that there are many ways to educate yourself and build a successful career!


Desi Signature13the Distance Learning Diva

Disclaimer:  Martin and Desi are fictional characters created by College SA for educational purposes.