The digital divide in South Africa’s higher education sector: why public internet access is important in the context of tertiary education

Analysis in brief | Information and communication technology integration into South African higher education teaching makes internet access crucial for students. Government has made progress in pioneering public internet access initiatives, but more must be done to ensure their sustainability.

Source: General Household Survey of Statistics South Africa, 2015. Graphic designed by IOA.


Key points:

  • With higher education institutions integrating ICTs as a means for teaching and sharing of educational resources, internet access is vital for student success. Without it, they face exclusion from opportunities for learning, research and employment.
  • South Africa’s high data costs mean free public internet access must be made a priority.
  • Government needs to engage in innovative and sustainable partnerships, if universal internet access is to be achieved for all South Africans.

The face of higher education in South Africa has changed radically. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have expanded access to information across a myriad of geographic areas. Institutions are investing heavily in ICTs, increasing reliance on online portals for access to vital study information and ‘open’ educational resources. This facilitates ‘’distance learning’’, remotely enabling students to access course material and assignments and allowing students to work during the day and virtually “attend’’ classes afterwards. Internet-based learning also fills a clear need for students in remote areas, providing a platform for student-lecturer interface in spite of geographic limitations. Internships, graduate schemes and scholarship notifications can be posted on educational sites, thus extending access to post-university opportunities across a wider audience.

South Africans, already marginalised in terms of education opportunities, risk being left further behind and even excluded from key aspects of the learning experience. For disadvantaged groups, many still living in areas where educational facilities are rudimentary, access to internet-based learning can provide them with access to high-quality educational resources at a cost significantly more affordable than them attending the institutions with associated costs of boarding and transport in addition to the fees. By ensuring more equitable access to internet, government can support broader access to education across all socio-economic and race groups and geographic location. In the last decade, the ICT sector has innovated and developed, though not at a fast-enough pace to respond to shifting student needs.


The benefits of reliable and affordable internet access are enjoyed by a relative few

In 2015, the General Household Survey of Statistics South Africa found 53.5% of households had at least one member with internet access (at home, work, place of study or internet cafés). However, those with home internet access accounted for only 9.6% of the population. At the provincial level, more glaring disparities existed: respondents in the Western Cape (21.4%) and Gauteng (15.6%) had the highest levels of home internet access, while the North West and Limpopo had the lowest, with 3.6% and 1.6% respectively. The vast majority of South Africans accessed internet outside the home: at work (15.0%), internet cafés or schools and universities (9.3%) and using mobile devices (47.6%).

Research ICT Africa, an ICT policy think tank, found that, in the first quarter of 2017, the “cheapest cost for a 1GB basket’’ in South Africa was US$7.49, compared to significantly lower costs in Egypt (US$1.41), Kenya (US$4.92) and Nigeria (US$3.21). High data package costs and out-of-bundle rates mean that mobile phone internet access is not an economically viable option for low-income users, which the majority of students are. These constraints are well-known to a government that has set itself the goal of providing internet access (at a minimum speed of 5mbps) to 90% of all South Africans by 2020. Is this a ray of hope for higher education students without reliable internet access or just another pipedream?

In his 2017 State of the Nation Address, President Jacob Zuma acknowledged the issue, stating, “We assure the youth that the lowering of the cost of data is uppermost in our policies and plans.” The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa is currently conducting an inquiry into high data costs. Despite a non-committal statement that reductions will be based on the outcome of a market review process, it remains to be seen what the tangible impact of this inquiry will be. Due to the marked variance in incomes, simply reducing the costs of data packages is also no guarantee that students will be able to afford to buy data units on a consistent enough basis. A more innovative approach is required: public internet-access zones where students can have access to reliable internet.

The national average percentage of income spent on mobile services and internet in South Africa is 24.7%, according to Research ICT Africa. Photo courtesy: ColaLife/Flickr

Government has recognised the potential of public internet access to filter throughout the economy and programmes have been piloted around the country with varying degrees of success

In 2015, the Western Cape Government launched its ‘E-learning Game Changer’ with the aim of providing free high-speed internet to schools in the province. In February 2017, they announced that the project had delivered the service to 1,414 sites and would be increasing the minimum network speeds to 100mbps. Conversely, the TshWi-Fi, collaboration between The City of Tshwane and Project Isizwe, piloted in 2013, provides over 800 free internet zones around the city. However, the project has unsustainably high operating costs, and controversially in December 2016, the Auditor General found US$13.8 million spent on the project to be ‘’unlawful and irregular’’, casting doubt on its future. In July 2017, the City of Tshwane appeared to have sourced US$6.8 million to fund the project for another year, though the necessary network expansion being included in this budget is unlikely. This is symptomatic of issues facing other projects, such as the Rural Campuses Connection Project (RCCP), which, during its first phase, linked 20 rural campuses to the South African National Research Network (SANREN) and faced issues with increasing maintenance and funding costs, lack of co-ordination between stakeholders and infrastructure limitations.


Improving student internet access requires participation from all stakeholders through innovative and mutually beneficial partnership models

The development of scalable, sustainable and impactful free internet access models must be a collaborative effort. The government controls policy decisions and infrastructure and must have the political will to create a conducive environment for public-private partnerships to thrive. In the private sector, telecoms providers showed a capacity to place student needs at the forefront when they temporarily provided free internet access to university websites during the #FeesMustFall protests. More sustained action can be encouraged through attractive government incentives for investment in the ICT-related facets of the education sector. Academic and research institutions must also be equal partners through ongoing consultation regarding their vision for ICT integration and the evolving needs of their students. Finally, civil society must also be engaged, as they represent the communities these programmes aim to connect. The success of these partnerships is what will ultimately enable the output of talented graduates who can contribute positively to the country’s workforce.