Higher or tertiary education includes education for undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, certificates and diplomas, up to the level of the doctoral degree.
The South African higher education system includes 23 public higher education institutions: 11 universities, 6 comprehensive universities and 6 universities of technology. As of January 2009, there were also 79 registered and 15 provisionally registered private higher education institutions. Many of South Africa's universities are world-class academic institutions, at the cutting edge of research in certain spheres.
In South Africa, a matric endorsement is required for the study of university degrees, with a minimum of three subjects passed at the higher grade. Some universities set additional academic requirements.
Although public tertiary institutions are subsidised by the state, the universities are autonomous, reporting to their own councils rather than to government. In 2008, the higher education budget was R18.5 billion. Some R15.1 billion of the budget was transferred to higher education institutions as block grants or earmarked funds.
According to 2007 figures, a total of 761,090 students were enrolled in the public higher education institutions. One year later, the student enrolment stood at 783,900 and is expected to grow to 836,800 by 2011. South African National Plan for higher education seeks to expand enrolment by setting a target of a 20 percent participation rate by 2015. It also proposes a shift in the balance of enrolments to a ratio of 40 percent in humanities, 30 percent in business and commerce, and 30 percent in science, engineering, and technology. In 2007, those percentages stood at 41.7 percent, 30.1 percent and 28.2 percent respectively.
The 2007 figures point to a great improvement in expending higher education to previously disadvantaged population. Almost 63 percent of students in the public higher education system were Black African. However, inequalities of outcome persisted, with the average success rate of Black African undergraduate students standing at only 73.6 percent.
Inequalities also existed in the share of Black African, Coloured and Indian or Asian staff permanently appointed to academic posts in the higher education system: in 2007, they accounted for only 38.6 percent. Women had a 42.8 percent share of permanently appointed academic staff posts, even though females accounted for 55.5 percent of all students enrolled into the tertiary institutions in 2007.