How much it costs to study at the top universities in the world vs South Africa

A recent study found that South Africa’s tertiary education system is one of the best in the world, when taking into account the country’s economics.

When adjusting for levels of economic development, a report by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic & Social Research at the University of Melbourne found that South Africa’s university system ranked as the second best in the world.

In effect, the report summarises that South Africa’s tertiary education system delivers top quality, given the few resources available.

Despite the top ranking, however, South Africa’s universities have come under fire in the last three years for fee structures that have been described as exclusionary – particularly to poor students, and those who fall into the country’s ‘missing middle’, who do not qualify for financial aid.

Below, BusinessTech looks at how South Africa’s university fees compare to the top institutions in the world, as well as the top universities in the BRICS nations.

Top university fees

According to the QS World University Rankings, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the world’s top university, followed by Stanford University and Ivy League Harvard.

These schools are world-renowned and carry a high level of prestige that comes with the name – and subsequently carry a very high price to attain it.

As part of its rankings, QS provides an annual tuition fee range for each institute, which gives a guideline for what you can expect to pay for an average undergraduate degree.

The prices reflect only the annual cost of a degree, and don’t include things like board, books and other living costs associated with studying, which can ramp up the cost significantly.

For example, while the average annual fee for tuition at Harvard is around $48,000 – including board this can shoot up to as high as $67,500 per year. In the UK, studies at Cambridge are around $12,000 per annum, but can go as high as $40,500 with board included.

The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology has one of the cheapest degrees in the world, with the university charging only $660 per semester in tuition fees ($1,320 per year). All compulsory costs included, it comes to $1,460 per year.

However, when living costs are factored in, the annual price can jump to as much as $22,500 a year.

The table below only looks at tuition costs for local undergraduates (ie, not international students). Figures have been rounded.

University Average annual tuition fee (USD) ZAR per year
California Institute of Technology $52 500 R738 200
Massachusetts Institute of Technology $51 830 R728 800
Stanford University $51 350 R722 000
University of Chicago $48 760 R685 600
Harvard University $46 340 R651 500
University of Oxford $12 120 R170 400
University of Cambridge $12 120 R170 400
University College London $12 120 R170 400
Imperial College London $12 120 R170 400
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology $1 460 R20 500

In the case of US universities, undergraduate degrees take four years to complete, while in Europe undergraduate degrees are can be three or four year courses. In South Africa, courses are three years.

In the US, at a top university you can expect to fork over almost R3 million for a completed degree while the UK’s top universities can range from R500,000 to R700,000 depending on the course length.

Degrees in South Africa, meanwhile, average between R110,000 and R200,000 at public institutions, and R300,000 at private institutions.

South Africa’s universities

Most of South Africa’s universities are public institutions which are heavily subsidised by the government. Thus our degrees appear quite cheap in comparison to international schools.

With private tertiary education, like Monash, the fees are not subsidised, and thus would reflect higher, though still appear cheaper than international counterparts.

The table below outlines the cost of studying various degrees in South Africa, based on the 2019 fee schedules.

University BA BCom BSc LLB BEng
University of Cape Town R56 320 R68 135 R62 186 R57 278 R64 490
University of the Witwatersrand R47 500 R49 465 R50 460 N/A R55 190
Stellenbosch University R42 664 R44 863 R50 908 R50 134 R59 167
University of KwaZulu Natal R44 735 R38 520 R41 217 R39 760 R47 000
University of Pretoria R41 687 R42 600 R44 062 R40 500 R47 444
Rhodes University R45 690 R49 988 R47 532 R51 253 R47 532
University of Johannesburg R40 015 R32 560 R50 020 R38 895 R47 330
University of Free State* R33 670 R33 395 R40 825 R37 380 N/A
Monash South Africa R86 776 R89 900 R94 750 R68 694 R94 750

* Faculty average

BRICS universities

Among the BRICS nations, QS ranks Tsinghua University (China), Lomonosov Moscow State University (Russia), the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (India) and Universidade de São Paulo (Brazil) as the top universities in each of the respective BRIC nations.

Compared to its peer countries, South Africa’s top-ranked university (the University of Cape Town) is more affordable than in China, Russia and India.

However, the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil is a state university, and does not charge for tuition, making it the most affordable overall.

University Average annual tuition fee (USD) ZAR per year
Tsinghua University $7 500 R105 500
Lomonosov Moscow State University $5 500 R77 300
Indian Institute of Technology Bombay $5 050 R71 000
University of Cape Town $4 400 R64 500
Universidade de São Paulo Free Free

All conversions done at 1 USD = 14.06 ZAR

Read: South Africa has one of the best university systems in the world – but there’s a catch

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How much it costs to study at the top universities in the world vs South Africa