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Masters Study in South Africa – A Guide for 2021

From "Big Five" safaris and dramatic mountains to rolling vineyards and pristine beaches, South Africa is a country rich in diversity, with captivating landscapes and a turbulent recent history. The "rainbow nation" has long been a popular destination for tourists and now growing numbers of students are considering a sub-Saharan move to study a Masters.

South Africa’s unique combination of people, scenery and wildlife makes it an incredibly diverse nation, and it’s also home to some of the best universities that the African continent has to offer.

We've put together a detailed advice guide covering everything you need to know about postgraduate study in South Africa. Elsewhere on this site you can get started with your search for a South African Masters degree.

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Postgraduate opportunities in South Africa – what’s on offer for 2021?

Located in the southernmost part of the African continent, South Africa is blessed with a warm climate and varied terrain that includes beaches, mountains, forest, desert and famous game reserves.

South Africa’s largest cities also offer globally competitive education and world leading research facilities. Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban are all home to internationally accredited universities, making South Africa even more attractive to overseas Masters students.

Here are some reasons why you should consider a Masters in South Africa:

  • Global reputation – With three universities among the world’s top 400, South Africa is home to some world-class institutions.
  • English-taught Masters – Although South Africa is one of the world’s most linguistically diverse nations (it has 11 official languages!), English is the language of instruction at most universities.
  • Affordability – Tuition fees in South Africa are relatively low compared to some Western countries, and a favourable exchange rate will make the cost of living cheap for many international students.

Masters Study in South Africa - Key Details
Universities 26 public universities
Oldest University University of Cape Town (1829)
International Students 42,267
Course Length 1-2 years
Average Fees R40,000 (USD $2,750)
Academic Year February to November

Coronavirus updates for international students at South African universities

For the latest information on the impact of coronavirus on studying a PhD in South Africa, please check with your university for updates.

South African universities

Higher education in South Africa has greatly developed since the end of apartheid and now plays a key role in the country’s status as a BRICS nation: one of five major emerging economies alongside Brazil, Russia, India and China.

In 2004, South Africa started to extensively reform its tertiary education system, with a focus on combining high quality teaching with equality for students. Many smaller institutions were merged to form larger universities, giving postgraduates greater access to first-rate research facilities.

The Department of Higher Education and Training is responsible for all tertiary education in South Africa. The country’s nine provinces also have their own education departments. These implement both national and local policies to suit regional student interests and needs.

Public universities

There are 26 public universities in South Africa. They are divided into three types:

  • 12 traditional universities, academic and research-focused in nature
  • 8 vocational universities of technology (“technikons”)
  • 6 comprehensive universities, offering a combination of academic and vocational qualifications

Private universities

There are several private universities and colleges in South Africa, which mostly offer vocational courses. Among the private institutions, there are two foreign branches of international universities: Australia’s Monash University (campus in Johannesburg) and the Netherlands’ Stenden University (campus in Port Alfred).

South African university rankings

South African public universities are consistently recognised in major university league tables such as the Times Higher Education and QS World University Rankings. This reflects their status as high quality learning environments.

Top South African Universities in 2021
University THE 2021 QS 2021 ARWU 2020
University of Cape Town =155 =220 201-300
University of the Witwatersrand 201-250 =403 201-300
Stellenbosch University 251-300 =456 401-500
University of KwaZulu-Natal 351-400 801-1000 501-600
Durban University of Technology 401-500 - -
North-West University 501-600 - -
University of Johannesburg 601-800 =439 601-700
University of Pretoria 601-800 561-570 401-500
University of the Western Cape 601-800 - -
Information in this table is based on the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, QS World University Rankings and Academic Ranking of World Universities. Visit their websites for more information.

Do university rankings matter for postgraduates?

University league tables can help you in your search for a Masters degree, but you need to know what to look for. Our guide to university rankings for Masters study can help.

Course types

Most universities in South Africa are internationally accredited and globally competitive, providing postgraduate students with excellent opportunities. The most popular fields of study for Masters students in South Africa are Engineering, Science, Law, Business, Humanities and Social Sciences.

The majority of Masters programmes are assessed through a combination of coursework and a research dissertation. They normally take one to two years to complete.

Some Masters degrees are assessed by research dissertation only and usually require two years to complete.

If your course involves exams, these will normally be taken in June and November at the end of each term.

The South African academic year is split into two semesters. The first runs from early February to early June, and the second from mid-July to late November.

Masters fees and funding in South Africa

Application fees for Masters in South Africa

When applying for a Masters in South Africa, you will normally pay a non-refundable international application fee. This will be around R300 (USD $20). Some institutions don't charge an international application fee at all.

Many South African universities will also charge international students with an annual administration fee; this will cost around R3,750 (USD $260).

Tuition fees for Masters in South Africa

Universities in South Africa set their own tuition rates, so exact fees and policies vary from institution to institution.

Students from Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) member countries are eligible to pay local tuition fees. View a list of the 15 SADC members. If you’re from an African country outside of the SADC, you may be eligible to pay lower tuition fees than non-African students.

Other international Masters students can expect tuition fees to range from R25,000 to R70,000 (USD $1,720-4,820), depending on the university and programme. Some MBAs and specialised postgraduate courses can cost up to R410,000 (USD $28,250).

As an international student, you might also be required to pay an ‘international term fee’ in addition to tuition fees. This could be as much as R55,000 (USD $3,790).

Funding for postgraduate study in South Africa

Most South African institutions provide bursaries and scholarships, although these are primarily offered to South African nationals and students from other African countries.

Tuition fee scholarships from universities are sometimes available for other international Masters students, but availability is often limited. Make sure you apply for scholarships early, as many university deadlines are in July for funding in the next academic year.

If you’re an American national, you may be able to apply for a Fulbright scholarship to study in South Africa. Commonwealth citizens could be eligible for a Commonwealth scholarship for Masters study in South Africa.

Student living costs in South Africa

Living expenses in South Africa are considerably lower than those in Europe and North America.

Student accommodation

Student accommodation is available at most South African universities, either on campus or nearby. Some will also have third-tier residences available that are solely for postgraduate and senior students.

If you live in university student housing, your accommodation can vary from a single or shared dormitory style room, to a room within a flat or house.

Prices will depend on the location and kind of accommodation, but will normally cost between R4,000 and R5,000 per month (USD $275-345). Utilities like electricity and water will cost around R400-800 per month on top of this (USD $28-55).

Student accommodation will need to be applied for between September and October before the start of academic year in February.

However, keep in mind that much of the available student accommodation will be filled by undergraduates, so many Masters students live in leased or private accommodation near to campus.

Living costs

Student living is fairly cheap for internationals in South Africa, even in the big commercial hubs of Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Basic food and groceries in particular cost very little, with transportation and leisure activities also remaining relatively cheap. You should budget around R2,000 per month (USD $140) for food, between R500 and R1,000 (USD $35-70) per month for transport and R5,000 per semester (USD $345) for books and stationery.

Applying for a Masters in South Africa

To apply for a Masters in South Africa, you’ll need an undergraduate degree.

The requirements for specific Masters courses varies, but the application process traditionally consists of an online application, followed by registration upon acceptance.

These are the documents you’ll usually need to submit to complete your application:

  • Completed application form
  • Proof that you’ve paid the application fee
  • Certified copies of your degree and academic transcripts
  • Programme-specific requirements, such as a creative writing portfolio or GMAT results

If you’re applying for a research-based Masters, you’ll need to submit a research proposal and get in touch with your prospective department about identifying a suitable supervisor.

As postgraduate degrees in South Africa start in February, you will need to apply for your Masters by September.

Language requirements

While most Masters courses in South Africa are taught in English, some former Afrikaner universities still teach in Afrikaans.

If English is not your first language and you wish to study a Masters degree delivered in English, you may need to submit a language test score. South African universities will normally accept either the IELTS (International Language Testing System) or TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) tests.

Score requirements will usually be as follows:

  • An IELTS score of 7.0 or better
  • A TOEFL score of 88 (internet-based)

Want to know more about postgraduate language tests?

Academic language tests are a common part of applications for postgraduate study abroad, but they don't have to be confusing. Our guides to postgraduate language tests cover popular English tests such as the TOEFL and IELTS.

Masters student visas in South Africa

A visitor’s visa allows international visitors to stay in South Africa for between 30 and 90 days. However, Masters students who want to remain in the country for the full duration of their course (i.e. 12 to 24 months) must apply for a student visa.

South African study permits are issued for a programme of study at a specific institution. Once you have accepted the formal offer from your university, you can make your application for a student visa.

A South African student visa also permits you to work part time for up to 20 hours per week during the academic term and full time during university vacations.

Visa application and fees

To apply for a student visa, you will need to complete the BI-1738 form, which costs around R1,800 (USD $130) to process. It normally takes six to eight weeks for applications to be processed and is valid for the duration of your course.

You’ll normally be required to present the following documentation to your nearest South African embassy or consulate when applying for your visa:

  • A passport which is valid for at least 30 days after the end of your course
  • Additional passport photos
  • An official university letter confirming your acceptance and the duration of the course
  • Criminal background check
  • Flight itinerary including return journey
  • Proof of financial means to support yourself while studying in South Africa
  • Proof of health insurance and a copy of your medical reports
  • Proof that you’ve paid the visa fee

Health insurance

Health insurance is compulsory for international Masters students and your university will require proof of medical cover that is recognised in South Africa before you can enrol.

Next steps

There's far more to see and do in South Africa than you can cover during a Masters degree – particularly while keeping up with your course!

Thankfully, South Africa's growing economy and unique opportunities can make it a great place to stay after you've completed your studies.

Opportunities with a South African Masters

The International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA) was established for South African universities to respond to increasing international educational trends. The IAESA has opened up many international contacts to South African universities to benefit its students and maintain a globally competitive economy.

This allows Masters students in South Africa to get an international perspective and prepares them to participate in world markets competitively.

Working in South Africa

As a BRICS nation, South Africa’s economy shows growing potential for employment. University career services understand the local employment market and can advise you on job opportunities during and after your degree.

Search for a Masters in South Africa

Ready to start looking for your ideal study abroad opportunity? Browse and compare Masters degrees in South Africa on

Last updated - 20/11/2020

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