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University versus college: choosing a study path

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Are you unsure about which tertiary education path to follow after graduation? Undecided about whether to attend a college or university at all, or uncertain about what the difference is? Perhaps you haven’t completed high school and simply want to know what opportunities are available to you in your pursuit of a career.

By Lyndy van den Barselaar, MD of ManpowerGroup SA

It is of great importance that learners and high school graduates who wish to study further, have a professional career and enter the labour market, not only be made aware of the various educational and skills-development options available to them, but also understand the difference between these options.

In this article we discuss the differences between traditional universities, universities of technology, private colleges, and Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges, as well as the various benefits and possible disadvantages.

Traditional University

A traditional university, according to Merriam-Webster is defined as “An institution of higher learning providing facilities for teaching and research and authorised to grant academic degrees. More specifically, universities are made up of both an undergraduate division which confers bachelor’s degrees, and a graduate division which comprises a graduate school and professional schools, each of which may confer master’s degrees and doctorates.

Traditional universities not only offer graduates internationally recognised professional qualifications, but they also tend to be more affordable than private colleges, due to the fact that they receive government subsidies. On the other hand, university acceptance is only granted to applicants who have completed Grade 12 and meet certain academic requirements. Further to this, many university courses are subject to stringent acceptance requirements.

University of Technology

Both traditional universities and universities of technology offer similar qualifications which range from Higher Certificates to Doctoral degrees. The distinguishing factor, however, is that universities of technology focus on innovation and knowledge transfer in the field of technology and offer technological career-directed educational programmes.

These institutions not only engage with industry to produce innovative problem-solving research but also include many programmes that offer work-integrated learning. This requires students to complete a structured programme while working in an organisation. Through direct exposure to the industry in which they will work students are able to develop additional competencies that they may not otherwise have gained through purely academic programmes and are assisted to find employment after graduation.

Private College

Private colleges are often described as privately-funded independent schools that set their own policies and goals. Private colleges tend to be far smaller than traditional universities and South Africa is home to a number of different types.

Besides the higher cost, one of the primary factors which differentiate universities and private colleges is specialisation. While traditional universities offer myriad courses in a variety of disciplines, the private colleges within South Africa are often more focused in their offerings. While some colleges educate students in fine art and graphic design, others are dedicated to business studies, technology or advertising.

Another differentiating feature is that students can choose between courses which vary in duration, from a short course of a few hours to formal diploma courses of three years. Although certain courses may have particular entry requirements, private colleges offer students who did not receive university entrance the opportunity to pursue a tertiary education in numerous fields.

TVET College

TVET colleges provide training for careers in a range of disciplines, from office administration, tourism and hospitality to primary health, primary agriculture, transport and logistics, information technology and computer science. Further to this, they offer courses in the field of engineering. One of the great benefits of TVET colleges is that they also provide theoretical and practical training to individuals who have not completed Grade 12. Bearing this in mind, there are two main avenues for Grade 9 school-leavers, including the National Certificate (Vocational) NC(V), and N1-N3 for engineering studies. The NC(V) is a three-year programme which takes learners from level 2 to level 4 (equivalent to a matric certificate.)

Public TVET colleges offer a variety of courses and programmes, specifically developed in response to the scarce skills required by employers. Of course the costs of the courses may vary considerably, but it is important to note that the Department of Higher Education and Training courses are subsidised to an extent and many full bursaries are also available.

In conclusion, different institutions of higher learning in South Africa offer a diverse range of qualifications at different levels, and as a high school graduate, school-leaver or even current student it is essential to know and understand the purpose of the various institutions and whether or not they will help you achieve your career goals.

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