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Alternatives To University

How to be college cool or an appie chappie? So you didn’t get into university. Bummer! But it’s not the end of the world – there are other avenues leading the way to your dream career.

Alternatives To University

It often gets drummed into us at school that if we don’t get a degree, we’re going to end up on the street. But not everyone can afford to go to university. Besides that, some of us are simply not academically inclined.

So here’s the thing: what if we told you that you could skip varsity and still get a good job – and one that pays decently, at that? Does it sound too good to be true? It isn’t!

Firstly, let’s not diss degrees. It’s a fact that university graduates can often demand double or triple the pay than non-graduates can. And they have less of a chance of finding themselves unemployed after graduating.

But there are loads of in-demand jobs out there that don’t require that gilded piece of paper – and, of course, if you’re entrepreneurial enough you may eventually have the luxury (and satisfaction) of writing your own pay cheque.

A case in point is a certain Bill Gates. The Microsoft founder and global philanthropist has been named the richest person in the world by Forbes magazine a staggering 27 times. And he dropped out of Harvard University.Other college dropouts who went on to be trailblazers and icons are movie director Steven Spielberg, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Apple pioneer Steve Jobs.

Of course, not everyone is going to be a business shape-shifter like these icons. So don’t entirely rule out some form of further education and training, because it will certainly give you the edge in the workplace.

But having a university degree is not the be-all and end-all. You’re not doomed to be a bum if you don’t have one! The good news is that you can capitalise on your talents, skills and interests and forge a successful career by enrolling at a college, taking up an apprenticeship or signing up for an internship. You CAN make it happen.

South Africa has a high unemployment rate – which is even steeper among the youth – but the government has identified artisanal and technical skills as being in hot demand in the labour market. Training up thousands more artisans and technicians is anticipated to stimulate economic growth and create additional jobs.

The upshot of this is that you are almost guaranteed a job if you choose to study or train for a vocation that addresses South Africa’s critical skills shortage.

So, don’t be depressed if you didn’t get university entrance, or you couldn’t get a place in the course of your choice, or you simply couldn’t afford the astronomical varsity fees. You can get skills savvy through other means!


Here are some career-focused alternatives to university:

Private colleges

There are hundreds of registered private colleges in South Africa, offering tailored diplomas or certificates that are aimed at producing graduates who are trained and ready to enter the workplace. Independent colleges may be dedicated to, for example, nursing, fitness, accounting and business skills, while others offer more general fields of study.

Some established brands, like Boston, Damelin, Intec, City Varsity and Midrand Campus, have a solid track record. But look out for the bogus operators – those that are not accredited by Umalusi on behalf of the Department of Higher Education and Training, and those whose courses are not registered with the South African Qualifications Authority.

In other words, it is important to determine whether your desired college complies with industry standards. Otherwise, you may get a nasty shock upon finding that your hard-earned qualification is not worth the paper it’s printed on. That’s why it’s important to do your homework in advance.

Check the NQF (National Qualifications Framework) level of your prospective qualification against the requirements of the marketplace. An NQF-registered grading means it is a nationally recognised qualification.

There are pros and cons to private colleges. They generally charge more for tuition than public colleges do, because they receive no state subsidy. But a plus is that the entrance requirements are usually not as high as they are for university, so you have a better chance of being accepted.

TVET colleges/Vocational training

South Africa’s Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges, have long been the neglected stepchildren of the higher education system.

Many school-leavers have been reluctant to enrol at one of these government-funded technical colleges for fear of receiving an inferior-quality education: they were thought of as cheap ’n nasty. That stigma is changing.

For one, the minister is intent on transforming these colleges into vital cogs in the job-creation machine – and is willing to invest money into them. This is because they can impart a number of the country’s in-demand skills through job-specific or occupational training. A turnaround strategy has already started making progress in improving the quality of learning and management at these institutions.

But why should you opt for a public technical college? If you choose one with a good reputation, you’ll gain skills and training in a field that makes you highly employable, especially if you are considering becoming an artisan or technician of some sort.

Some of these colleges require only a Grade 9 or Grade 10 certificate, making them accessible to the average would-be student. They also offer vocational instruction to high school-age children who are able to obtain the technical equivalent of a matric.

A college diploma can also serve as a bridging course for admission to universities of technology (the former technikons).

For more information on TVET colleges, see the DHET’s TVET website



Interning – which usually involves doing work for a small stipend or even for free – is a valuable gateway to gain professional skills, knowledge and experience.

Job seekers often complain they can’t get a foot in the door of any workplace because they lack experience. But the benefit of interning is that you gain valuable real-world experience and references to beef up your CV, making you more employable. And even better: if you excel, you may be offered a permanent (and paying) position at the end of the internship.

Thinking of taking a gap year after matric? Check out internship and volunteer work opportunities overseas and see the world while you work!

So, consider approaching a company and offering your labour for nada. Most employers will appreciate your initiative and enthusiasm. If they ask you to stay on at the end of your internship, they may even be able to finance your salary from the government’s youth wage subsidy scheme.

By starting at the bottom, getting to know the nuts and bolts and gradually working your way up, you’ll be able to familiarise yourself with a particular industry.

Alternatively, consider volunteering at your local SPCA, church, children’s shelter or old age home. That way, you will notch up work experience and it will also show anyone looking at your CV that you are a caring and socially committed citizen.

Apprenticeships and learnerships

South Africa’s shortage of skilled tradespeople and artisans means that there are great opportunities in the hands-on ‘learn while you earn’ category.

An apprenticeship is generally trade-based, while a learnership is usually profession-based. Both are connected to on-the-job workplace training. Some companies offer learnerships, where you work while studying and training towards a qualification.

These occupational learnerships, which are funded by employers via the Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs), combine theory and practical elements and are aimed at addressing the specific needs of the labour market. (For information on the SETAs and how they can help you.)

A trade apprenticeship also combines workplace and formal learning, and is based on an agreement between the individual who wants to learn the skill and the employer who needs a skilled worker – a win-win situation. You will gain practical skills on-site under the supervision of a qualified tradesman.

In the case of both apprenticeships and learnerships, you will earn a salary while working towards what is essentially a free qualification. Because you are taught valuable skills in a practical environment, you have an excellent chance of nailing down a decent job at the end of your training. Give it a go and prove what you’re made of!


Check your college’s pedigree

How do you know if your college is legitimate? MSC Business College has some tips for prospective students:

  • Is it accredited and can it produce a registration number?
  • What NQF level are its diplomas and/or certificates?
  • How much does the course cost, and are there flexible payment options?
  • Are there any hidden costs, such as study materials and registration fees?
  • What study resources – such as libraries, computers and internet – are available to students?
  • Does it have a good reputation in the job market?
  • Consult the South African Qualifications Authority website for info and careers advice – www.saqa.org.za.