Should I Stay or Should I Go

Studying abroad vs staying at home

By Ilan Preskovsky

Of the two great questions that all South African students must ask themselves as they contemplate their future after high school, “what’s next?” is undoubtedly the more daunting, but “where next?” has become a question of increasing urgency and relevance. A tertiary education or straight to work? A more specialised, technical college or a major university? By correspondence or attendance? But perhaps most crucially, at home or abroad?

Many Jewish students, of course, will be able to push this off by a year or three if they choose to go to yeshiva or seminary – and a gap year travelling, working, or volunteering is hardly unusual for recent high school graduates in general – but the answer to these questions will define not just their immediate future but, potentially, the rest of their lives.

While answering all these questions is crucial, no doubt the toughest decision is whether to study here in South Africa or to go abroad for all, or part, of your tertiary education. There are serious benefits and drawbacks to studying close to home against studying and living on an overseas campus, but with greater contemporary concerns over anti-Semitism on campus and the international recognition of our degrees, this becomes a far bigger question than one of merely having the best “college experience”.

Studying Locally

Doing your degree or diploma in South Africa, unsurprisingly, has plenty to recommend it and at least some to caution against it.

The most obvious benefit of a local education is convenience. By all indications, it appears to be the case that those who attend a local college or university in this country usually remain at home with their parents. Indeed, according to a number of studies both in South Africa and abroad, because of the steep rise in the cost of living, an increasingly volatile world economy, and the difficulty in finding lucrative enough work to cover even the most basic of expenses, millennials and the current generation (generation Z?) are far more likely to stay in their parents’ home even in their late twenties and thirties than were previous generations.

Attending a local university means that students can – and usually do – live at home, with all the conveniences that that suggests, and they can pick up lower-paying jobs to give themselves some disposable income or to help out the family. For students living in major cities (as is the case with the vast majority of the country’s Jews), it’s also fairly effortless to commute from home to college as cities like Johannesburg, Cape Town, or Durban tend to have at least one major university and a bunch of smaller, independent colleges like Boston City College or Damelin that are all easily accessible. Even smaller towns like Grahamstown and Stellenbosch have their own universities and colleges.

There also doesn’t seem to be too much of a difference between South Africa’s major universities in terms of accreditation and academic recognition (though they all, obviously, have their own specialities and unique selling points) so unlike, say, the United States, where the Ivy League schools tower above all else, students don’t have to travel across country to attend their school of choice. And even when, for example, they wish to study medicine at Wits or journalism at Rhodes University and have to move across the country, it’s at most a couple of hours flight away from home.

In terms of affordability, the difference between studying in South Africa and abroad could not be more profound. Even the best South African universities are much cheaper than their overseas counterparts – heck, they’re probably cheaper than most Jewish day schools in South Africa too – and all costs are in rands, not in dollars, shekels, or, heaven help us, pounds. That most students can also stay at home during their studies mean that they and their parents save substantial sums of money on accommodation, both on and off campus.

Not to say that everyone can afford university, but crushing student debt has never been in South Africa what it is in the States, where even upper-middle class students may find themselves paying off their studies for literal decades. Even South African students who get full bursaries to, say, Bar Ilan, Harvard, or Cambridge have to deal with a very high cost of living on and off campus. There’s simply no comparison: a South African education simply won’t put the financial strain on a South African family that an overseas education would.

Are Our Universities Still Okay?

While it’s all very well that studying in South Africa offers undeniable benefits in terms of affordability and convenience, one gigantic question remains: is it actually worth studying in South African universities and colleges?

It’s no secret that the quality of basic education in South Africa has gone downhill in recent years, as the requirements for passing matric are, frankly, shockingly low. It may be controversial to say, but there is a real sense that our government has opted not to go the more expensive and difficult route of offering top-notch schooling to the South African masses, but have lowered the level of education to make it easier for those masses to at least get a grade 10 certificate, if not a matric. This is, arguably, the single greatest factor in South Africa not achieving its incredible potential as a country as poor education is at the root of the crime, abject poverty, and unchecked power.

Does this, however, mean that our universities and colleges are substandard, or that our degrees lack international recognition? The short answer, thankfully, is ‘no’. But that does come with certain qualifications.

In the latest QS rankings of universities worldwide, six of our universities did make it into the top 500. According to rankings such as these, if you’re looking for only the very best of the very best universities in the world, then you would do well to look at the US and the UK. All of the top 10 listed universities are situated in these countries and they make up a sizeable chunk of the rest of the top 100.

That said, it is worth pointing out that having both Wits and UCT rank in the top 200 universities worldwide does still speak highly of these schools, in particular, and of the overall state of tertiary education in this country, in general. Also of note, South African universities overwhelmingly climbed up in position on the list in 2020.

For a direct comparison between South African and American universities, I spoke with Paul Wayburne who spent the years 2003 to 2014 at Wits earning a succession of law degrees (in order: a BA, an LLM, an LLB, and finally a PHD) and, after emigrating to the States, did a further LLM degree at the University of California in 2017.

Paul admits that the exacting levels at UCLA were “eye opening” and represented a far higher level in terms of both of instruction and of expectations. He notes that there was a much greater intensity in the lectures themselves, as his lecturers employed the “Socratic method”, which involves having the students put on the spot constantly with a barrage of questions that are supposed to engender critical thinking, but, as Paul puts it, almost feels like being “picked on” at times.

He admits that despite not operating on quite so punishingly high a level, his studies at Wits still held to high academic standards and his lecturers were top-drawer. And, if you’re wondering about the worth of a South African degree, at least in law, it’s pretty clear that they still carry some weight as Paul was still able to get into an advanced law course at one of the United States’ most prestigious universities and was soon able to take the California bar exam as well.

Our universities and our degrees are, indeed, internationally recognised. However, even our more specialised colleges like Damelin or Boston City College keep an eye on the international ball by offering diplomas that aren’t just internationally recognised, but often originate in the UK or the US. As Boston’s Natalie Rabson explains, “Our Higher Education qualifications are accredited by the Council on Higher Education locally, and we also have international institutional recognition (British Accreditation Council and ACBSP – USA). The occupational qualifications also have industry accreditation – Boston is recognised by CompTia (USA) as the top training provider and certification partner in Africa and third globally.”

Admittedly, in the case of certain degrees like medicine or law, most other countries require at least a conversion exam before allowing you to practice in your chosen field, but there’s a huge difference between needing to supplement your South African qualifications and needing to completely redo them.

This is certainly worth keeping in mind if you do choose to study in South Africa but expect to emigrate, especially in the near future. Indeed, because of how volatile the situation in South Africa is and has been for decades, it does need to be understood that just because our universities are of a generally high level now, that doesn’t mean that they will remain so in the future. Again, though, despite all the increased pessimism and anxieties about the future of this country that have gripped South Africans over the past few years, our universities have, in fact, climbed in worldwide estimation.

As for whether it’s advisable to attend campuses that have become increasingly known for anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiments, may I point you towards my other article in this issue that deals in depth with this very issue. In short, though, while ignorance and an academic bias do sometimes lead to incidents of casual anti-Semitism from both students and lecturers, the situation has actually improved in recent years with SAUJS, in particular, standing up for Jews and Israel constantly. More than just ensuring that campuses are ultimately safe for Jews, though, SAUJS works hard to ensure that Jewish life on campuses in South Africa continues to actively thrive.

And, of course, it’s worth remembering that while campuses in Israel are presumably largely free of anti-Semitism, those in most other countries have it as bad and often far, far worse than Wits or UCT.

The Value of Studying Abroad

“In December of 2017, I visited the IDC and was blown away by the unbelievable campus, its state-of-the-art facilities, and, as we say in South Africa, the overall ‘vibe’ was truly exciting and warming. Not only am I getting an incredible degree, IDC offers me the opportunity to network with world renowned lecturers and with other students from 90 different countries! I have made bonds that will last a lifetime and, above all of this, I am privileged to be living the path of the Jewish people in the land of Israel, all while studying in English and in an English-speaking environment.”

This is a quote from Noah Marks, a 21-year old South African who is currently studying a double major in Business Administration and Entrepreneurship at IDC, Herzlia, in Israel. It’s a fair encapsulation of why, despite the cost and the lack of both convenience and cultural familiarity, there is real value in studying abroad. Not because there is anything wrong with the clearly solid-to-excellent universities and colleges in South Africa, but because studying abroad offers opportunities that simply can’t be matched by attending a campus a twenty-minute drive from your house.

Quite aside from the high quality of universities like Bar Ilan or IDC – or the more famous universities in Europe or America, for that matter – the ability to meet students from all over the world offers the chance to greatly expand your awareness and knowledge of different cultures and backgrounds. Considering the major cultural and language barriers between various South African groups, there may arguably be an even great cultural shock when spending significant amounts of time with a poor, rural black student at Wits than with an American Jew at IDC, but that’s a whole other story.

Regardless, the experience of making your way in a foreign country (even if that country is Israel) is no doubt invaluable and is something that can’t be replicated studying in South Africa. It also fosters true independence in a way that that certainly can’t be matched by continuing to live in your childhood home. Even if your parents are paying your entire way, being thousands of miles from home and needing to acclimate to the already daunting task of attending an institute of higher learning on top of settling into dorm life or shared off-campus living is a major growth experience on every level.

A university like the IDC offers a particularly great chance to meet up with students from all over the world, to live the “Israeli lifestyle” for a few years, and to study in English as well. This is, of course, also true of studying at, say, Yale or Oxford (though substitute “Israeli” for “American” or “British”, respectively) but, for Jews, there are obvious advantages to choosing to study in Israel – financially, religiously, and culturally. For those of the more religious persuasion, Israel also offers a number of colleges where students can divide their time between yeshiva and secular studies.

Yes, But Which Is Really Better?

Not to be too diplomatic and even-handed about this, but deciding whether to study at home or abroad comes down to the practicalities of your particular situation, what you’re looking for in your university experience, and whether you are psychologically ready to make such a sharp shift from the comfort and safety of your childhood home to making your own way in a foreign country. Where your friends go is probably worth considering too, as are your real expectations of continuing to live in South Africa in even the medium term.

And, the fact that studying at home or abroad are both equally viable options, as things stand, is something that all university students can take great comfort in. In spite of the constant despair and disillusionment about everything involving the state of this country (some fair, some less so), it says something about our institutions that studying abroad is still a choice, even a luxury, to South African university students, and not, in any way, an absolute necessity.

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