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Masters in South Africa

by Charlotte Griffiths

From Big Five safaris, to Winelands and pristine beaches; South Africa is a country rich in diversity with its encapsulating landscapes and significant history. The “Rainbow Nation” has long been a popular destination for tourists and now a growing number of students are considering a sub-Saharan move to study a Masters.

South Africa’s exotic combination of people, scenery and wildlife makes it one of Africa’s most interesting nations, whilst also being home to the best universities the 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.

Why study a Masters in South Africa?

Located in the most Southern end of the African continent, South Africa is blessed with a warm climate and diverse terrain that includes beaches, mountains, forest, desert, and famous game reserves.

But she’s not just a pretty face; 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 all the more attractive to international Masters students.

How popular is Masters study abroad in South Africa?

South Africa has 800,000 students in higher education, more than 60,000 of which are international. The country has over 170 Masters courses to choose from, with over 70 based in the popular hotspot of Cape Town and the wider Western Cape.

These increasing numbers of postgraduate students and courses demonstrate how popular and exciting South Africa is as a Study Abroad opportunity.

Universities in South Africa: an introduction for postgraduates

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 23 Public universities in South Africa. They are divided into three types:

  • 11 traditional universities - academic in nature
  • 6 universities of technology (“technikons”) - vocational
  • 6 comprehensive universities - offering a combination of academic and vocational qualifications

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 and Regional University Rankings. This reflects their status as high quality learning environments.

The Times Higher Education (THE) University World Rankings: South Africa
University THE Ranking THE Africa Region Ranking
University of Cape Town =120 1
University of Witwatersrand 201-250 2
Stellenbosch University 301-350 4
University of KwaZulu-Natal 401-500 5
University of Pretoria 501-600 11
University of South Africa 601-800 13
Information in this table is based on the 2015-16 Times Higher Education World University Rankings and the 2015 Times Higher Education Top 30 African University Rankings. Visit their websites for more information.

The QS University World Rankings: South Africa
University QS Ranking QS BRICS Ranking
University of Cape Town 171 14
Stellenbosch University 302 34
University of Witwatersrand 331 28
University of Pretoria 501-550 49
Rhodes University 501-550 79
University of KwaZulu-Natal 551-600 68
University of Johannesburg 601-650 67
University of the Western Cape 701+ 100
North West University 701+ -
Information in this table is based on the 2015-16 QS World University Rankings and QS University Rankings: BRICS 2015. Visit their websites for more information.

South Africa’s highest ranking universities boast large numbers of international students and a wide array of specialist study options:

  • University of Cape Town (UCT) - 2,000 international postgraduate students, with MBA programme featured in Financial Times Top 100
  • University of Witwatersrand (Wits) - over 10,000 postgraduate students, 20 ‘international leading scholars’, notable alumni including Nelson Mandela
  • Stellenbosch University (SU) - highest research output in South Africa, leader in biomedical sciences and technology.

Private universities

There are 22 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’a Monash University - campus in Johannesburg.
  • Holland’s Stenden University - campus in Port Alfred

South African Masters degrees programme types and course structure

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 and Commerce; Humanities; and Social Science.

Course length

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.

The majority of Masters programmes are assessed through a combination of coursework and a research dissertation. They will normally take 1 - 2 years to complete.

Some Masters degrees are assessed by research dissertation only and usually require 2 years to complete.

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

Applying for a Masters in South Africa

To apply for a Masters in South Africa, you will be required to have an Honours degree.

The requirements for specific Masters courses will vary, so you will need to check with the university before applying.

The application process traditionally consists of a formal online application, followed by registration upon acceptance. As postgraduate degrees in South Africa start in February, you will need to apply for your Masters by September.

Language requirements

While the majority of Masters courses in South Africa are taught in English, some former Afrikaner universities still teach predominantly in Afrikaans.

If English is not your first language and you wish to study a Masters degree delivered predominantly 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 normally be as follows:

  • An IELTS score of 7.0 or better
  • A TOEFL score of 550 (paper based) or 80 (computer 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 tests of English 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 wish to remain in the country for the full duration of their course (i.e 12 – 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 R500 (GPB £23) to process. It normally takes 6 – 8 weeks for applications to be processed and is valid for the duration of your course.

You may be required to present the following documentation to your nearest South African Embassy, Consulate or High Commission when applying for your visa:

  • a valid passport which expires no less than 30 days before the end of your course
  • additional passport photos
  • an official university letter confirming your acceptance and the duration of the course
  • flight itinerary including return journey
  • proof of health insurance and a copy of your medical reports
  • criminal background check
  • proof of financial means to support yourself while studying in South Africa

Health insurance

Health insurance is compulsory for international Masters students, therefore your university will require proof of medical cover that is registered in and/or recognised in South Africa.

Fees and funding for Masters degrees in South Africa

While South Africa is financially favourable for many internationals, it can potentially become costly for Masters students.

Universities in South Africa set their own tuition rates, which causes fees to vary.

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 can vary between R200 - R300 (£9 - £13). Some institutions (such as Stellenbosch University) do not charge an international application fee at all.

Many South African universities will also charge international students with an annual administration fee; this can cost between R3,000 – R5,000 (£135 - £227).

Tuition fees for Masters in South Africa

Students from Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) member countries are eligible to pay local / home tuition fees. You can find a list of the 15 SADC members here.

Other international Masters students can expect tuition fees to vary greatly from R25,000 – R70, 000 (GBP £1,200 - £3,200) depending on the university. Some MBAs and specialised postgraduate courses can cost in excess of R100,000 (£4,500).

Masters students taking part in an exchange programme (i.e studying abroad for a semester) are normally subject to very high tuition fees in South Africa. For example, exchange students taking courses at UCT that will not ultimately count towards obtaining a South African degree, are charged US $6,000 per semester.

All international students are required to pay their tuition fees in full prior to registering and starting their courses.

Funding for postgraduate study in South Africa

The majority of 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 are available for other international Masters students although availability of these is often limited. Make sure you apply for scholarships early, as many university deadlines are in July for funding in the next academic year.

Student living costs in South Africa

Living expenses in South Africa are considerably lower than those in in Europe and North America; with international students from the latter benefitting from a favourable exchange rate.

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.

Should 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 therefore also vary depending on room styles and university but normally range between R30,000 – R60,000 (£1,360 - £2,720) for the academic year.

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 deemed 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. Monthly utilities such as power bills are likely to be a student’s greatest expense in South Africa.

The following tables give typical prices for some of the goods and services you'll need whilst studying in South Africa.

Item Price (ZAR) Price (£)
Milk (1 litre) 12.25 0.55
Loaf of bread (500g) 11.50 0.50
Potatoes (1kg) 14.50 0.65
Chicken breasts (1kg) 61.10 2.75
Rice (1kg) 16.70 0.75

Monthly Utilities
Item Price (ZAR) Price (£)
Monthly travel pass 400 18
Broadband internet (10mbps, unlimited, Cable/ADSL) 770 35
Domestic utilities (Electricity, Heating, Water and Waste) 1,110 50

Item Price (ZAR) Price (£)
Cinema ticket 65 2.95
Gym membership (monthly) 408 18.50
Meal for 2, mid-range restaurant, three course 400 18.20

Note Information in the above tables is based on crowd-sourced data collected by Numbeo. Figures are approximate and provided for comparative purposes only. They do not take account of student discounts and may vary over time or between cities.

After graduation: careers and opportunities with a South African Masters degree

There's far more to see and do in South Africa than you can cover during a one or two year Masters degree - particularly whilst 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.


Graduation ceremonies for postgraduate students are normally held in June and December in South Africa.

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 obtain a global perspective and prepare 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 will have an understanding of the local employment market and can advise you on job opportunities during and after your degree.

Ready to start looking for a Masters in South Africa?

Hopefully this page has answered your questions about Masters degrees in South Africa. If you're ready to start your postgraduate study abroad adventure, the next step is to search for a South African Masters degree.

Last updated - 11/04/2016

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