Considering an international university for your child? Read this now.

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There’s a growing trend of South African parents sending their children to study at universities abroad. If you, too, are considering this, here are a few pros and cons to keep in mind.

1.2 million. That’s the number of South Africans considering studying abroad, according to BrandMapp’s annual survey of more than 33 000 middle-class South Africans living in households with an R10 000+ monthly income, as published last year. That’s an incredibly high number, but it shows the extent of interest in sending one’s children abroad for tertiary education. At the same time, ICEF Monitor reports that universities in Europe and North America are increasingly intensifying competition to attract students from Africa in an attempt to both enrol top-tier talent and diversify their institutions, making for an all-round conducive environment for South Africans to send their children to study overseas – finances willing. 

The numbers

South Africa has some very (globally) high-ranking universities. Despite this, the appeal of an international education does not seem to be losing its shine for local parents. The 1.2 million mentioned above refers to those either planning, working towards or dreaming of international studies. While insightful, it’s a far cry from reality, as only 1% of this demographic fulfils this.

A recent article reports that about 12 000 South African students are studying internationally this year. The number has not shifted tangibly in the last few years, which is likely a pandemic-related pause and reflective of the return home of many students studying in China. However, there are signs that there is an upward move on the horizon, with Heidi Sulcas, Editor of University Speaking: The South African Guide to Overseas Study, stating: “I have experienced a sizeable uptick in interest over the last year (2021/2022) for information on international education”.  

Globally, the top 10 countries for international students are the US (which reportedly has almost one million international students at its tertiary institutions), the UK, Canada, China, Australia, France, Russia, Germany, Japan, and Spain. But for South Africans, the leading university study destinations are the US, the UK, Australia and Germany – with Cuba factored in for medical students. The US alone reportedly accounted for about 20% (or 2 375) of outbound SA students for 2021/2022.

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The other numbers

The cost of financing international studies is significant, no matter what your budget is. Looking at the US, the average cost of living for international students ranges from $10 000 (R186 400*) to $18 000 (R335 520*) per year, while college tuition can range from $32 000 (R596 480*) to $60 000 (R1 118 400*) per year, according to Erudera, which describes itself as the world’s first education search platform backed by AI.

For other expenses, Erudera lists:

  • Textbooks and supplies: $1 240 (R23 113.60*) per year
  • Accommodation: $1 500 (R27 960*) to $3 100 (R57 784*) per month
  • Transportation: $90 (R1 677.60*) to $130 (R2 423.20*) per month
  • Additional expenses: F1 visa at $510 (R9 506.40*) per application

While these figures are mere guidelines and may vary depending on your chosen institution, course and place of residence during studies, they suggest that self-funded international studies will cost at least $45 000 (R838 800*) per year – more than double the annual fees of South Africa’s most expensive private schools, which tally up to around $21 000 (R391 440*).

The good

There are numerous benefits to sending your children to study abroad. In the same way that international travel can enrich one’s view of the world and provide invaluable exposure to different cultures and ways of being, international studies can expand your child’s global perspective at a particularly critical phase of their life – one in which they’re making key decisions about the direction of their future. 

International studies can also offer your child a competitive advantage should they return to South Africa. Even if they don’t, qualifying a well-regarded institution can increase the likelihood of your child securing employment outside the country.

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The not so good

While a global advantage is valuable, you don’t want it to come at the expense of your child’s well-being. Beyond adjusting to a new environment, some people, young and old, underestimate the toll that separation from family can take on them, which can, unfortunately, result in a mental health crisis. This can affect academic performance and, in the worst case, result in failed courses. Expensive failed courses. 

Most parents can attest that there are often unforeseen expenses when raising a child, so expect the same with your overseas-domiciled student. You may plan to the best of your ability but anticipate that there may be other expenses that push up the overall costs. This is something to prepare for before your financial future and the well-being of your family are jeopardised. 

It’s also important to consider how your family dynamic will change with one less family member present full-time. Will younger siblings cope with their older brother or sister’s absence? Will everyone’s holiday schedule allow for quality family time together? Will your job or partner’s allow for a last-minute international trip should your child require your presence?

This is not to put you off but rather to help you prepare properly for what might be ahead. If international studies still feels like the way to go, here’s how to get started.

Four tips for forging ahead 

  1. It’s important to ensure that your child’s high-school qualification will enable them to study internationally. Some universities abroad will, for example, require an IEB National Senior Certificate, while others may impose additional requirements. International tertiary agents can guide you through this (some private schools offer this service), but use a credible company with verifiable reviews and associations. 
  2. The South African academic calendar does not run parallel to most European and North American institutions. This means a fair bit of strategic time planning is necessary–including when to apply. It may help you set up a clear view of the institutions your child would like to study at open and close applications and their specific requirements. The earlier you do this, the better to avoid submitting applications under pressure – this is also something an international tertiary agent can guide you through. 
  3. Once you indicate where your child will study, pre- or post-acceptance, start to build familiarity with their new environment. This could include learning about the history of the country, state or city; getting familiar with the sites, parks and facilities in close proximity; exploring potential recreational activities to engage in; and/or searching for established expat or student South African groups. These are often treasure troves of information and useful tips that the generic travel guides online don’t provide. It’s also nice to know where you’ll be able to top up your stash of NikNaks.
  4. Because of the cost of financing international studies, it’s important that you get ahead of all things money as far in advance as possible. Aside from the lump-sum payments you’ll need to make, you also want to consider and plan for the everyday expenses your child may encounter. What might these look like? How will you send them money conveniently, especially in emergencies? 

A solution worth considering is the global money app Shyft, powered by Standard Bank, but can be used by anyone, anywhere – no matter where you bank. Shyft allows you to send free, instant Shyft-to-Shyft payments 24/7, no matter where the sender and/or receiver are. The app allows you to access the cheapest forex in South Africa, meaning you get more for your money than with any other local bank. Considering the eye-watering fees outlined above, every cent saved goes a long way – and could subsequently impact your child’s overall international experience.

*Costs as outlined by Erudera and calculated at R18.64/$ on 7 August 2023.

This post was sponsored by Shyft, the global money app that’s powered by Standard Bank. Shyft makes it easier and more convenient for you to travel and shop internationally thanks to virtual cards available in four major currencies (USD, GBP, EUR and AUD). For a limited period, until 31 August 2023, Shyft users will pay zero card fees when using their Shyft physical (rand, forex or UnionPay International) or virtual cards to swipe, tap and check out. ATM withdrawal fees still apply. Ts and Cs apply.

Visit Shyft to download it now, no matter where you bank. Shyft operates under the licence of The Standard Bank of South Africa Limited, an authorised Financial Services Provider (FSP number 11287).