Marc Hasenfuss Editor-at-large

Private tertiary education specialist Stadio Holdings’s ambitious long-term goal of enrolling 100,000 students will be driven by its distance learning offering.

Stadio’s interim results, released on Monday, showed student numbers at the end of August topped 29,000 compared with about 25,000 at the end of June 2017. Distance learning courses accommodated over 24,000 students.

Stadio’s prelisting statement forecast the student number to reach 56,000 by 2026. Stadio CEO Chris van der Merwe said this could grow over the longer term to 100,000 students, of which 70% is expected to comprise distance learners.

Stadio’s tertiary offering is premised on a "multiversity" concept that offers both contact and distance learning in a variety of existing and planned courses that range from fashion design to engineering, and performing arts to commerce.

He stressed that the benefit of distance learning is that it does not necessarily require vast investment in infrastructure.

Van der Merwe said Stadio’s longer-term vision is to house all its operations under the Stadio multiversity brand.

He said a single brand would make marketing easier and would allow students to migrate easier between qualifications and transfer credits.

In terms of greenfield developments, the company took a major step recently when it confirmed an investment in a multiversity campus in Durbanville near Cape Town.

Van der Merwe said this campus will eventually accommodate about 5,000 contact students and 15,000 distance learning students. "We will later expand this blueprint to some of the other provinces."

He said the group is firmly on track to build a diversified tertiary business. Van der Merwe said there are about 167,000 students enrolled at private higher education institutions in SA compared with 1-million students enrolled at public universities. "It is accepted that public universities have a limited infrastructure and state subsidies to cater for the growing need." He argued that with the National Development Plan’s aim of 1.6-million students by 2030, further capacity to accommodate an additional 300,000 to 500,000 students is needed. "The higher education market has more than enough room."

In the interim period, Stadio invested R417m to acquire niche tertiary brands Lisof (fashion design and retail) and CA Connect (accounting) as well as a majority stake in the Milpark business school.

The group also invested R36m on the capital expansion of facilities as well as new programme development.

Stadio, which generated R97m in net cash flows in the period, still holds cash balances of R304m that will be mobilised to fund new developments and potential acquisitions that are in various stages of negotiation.