Obtaining a South African university exemption using IG, AS- & A-Levels

university student on stepsAll students wanting to study at a South African university must obtain a university exemption to be admitted into tertiary studies. No university in South Africa will accept a student without this exemption. The exemption indicates that a student has met the basic requirements and conditions at secondary school level in order to be admitted to study a degree at a university or other tertiary institution. For school-going children writing the NSC (National Senior Certificate), the university exemption is issued automatically by Umalusi with their 'matric' results if they meet the necessary requirements. However, students with a foreign qualification like the Cambridge International or Pearson Edexcel's International GCSE (IG) and AS/A Levels need to apply to Universities South Africa (USAf) and in particular to the matriculation board for exemption. USAf will issue conditional or full exemptions to students who meet certain requirements in terms of the Higher Education Act (Act 101 of 1997) no 1317 dated 5 December 2008.

Just note that there are two exam boards that offer the International GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) and AS/A Levels, namely Cambridge International and Pearson Edexcel. While Cambridge International is well known in the homeschooling community, Pearson Edexcel is fairly new to South Africa although they have operated in many other countries for many years. Both exam boards offer many subjects to private candidates.

In this article, I discuss the USAf requirements for exemption as they relate to the homeschooler with Cambridge or Pearson Edexcel International GCSE (IG) and AS/A Level subjects, and how to apply for such an exemption.

Options for university exemption using International GCSE and AS/A Levels

While it is generally accepted that the International GCSE (IG) is equivalent to the South African grade 11, AS level to the South African grade 12, and A level to a grade 13, USAf accepts a combination of these qualifications in order to issue a full university exemption. For the homeschooler, there are essentially three options from which to choose for exemption. There is a fourth option — the Cambridge International AICE (Advanced International Certificate of Education) — which is awarded to students taking subjects in a broad range of fields - language, maths, science and humanities. However, this option requires an additional compulsory subject, Global perspectives and research which is unfortunately not available to private candidates, making this option not possible for homeschoolers. The other three options, however, are more than adequate to prepare a student for university and do not prevent a student from taking a wide range of subjects.

Option 1: A levels (2 A level subjects + 3 IG subjects)

In this option, a student presents a total of five (5) subjects -  2 subjects at A level AND 3 subjects at IG level. Subjects offered at A level must be passed with a minimum of an E-grade (40-49%) and the IG subjects must be passed with a minimum of a C-grade (60-69%). Students must choose one subject from Group I, one subject from Group II and one subject for Group III. The fourth and fifth subjects which can be taken at either A or IG level can come from any of the groups.More than one subject can be chosen from a group as long as the minimum requirements have been met (i.e. the three subjects from Groups I, II and III — see below for a discussion on these groups).

Option 2: A levels (3 A level subjects + 1 IG subject)

In this option a student presents a total of four (4) subjects - 3 subjects at A level AND 1 subject at IG level. As in Option 1, the student must present one subject from Group I, one subject from Group II and one from Group III at either A level or IG level and the fourth subject can come from any of the groups. Again, more than one subject can be chosen from a group as long as the minimum requirements have been met. This would mean that a student could take a Group I subject, a Group II subject and 2 subjects from Group III. A level subjects must be passed with a minimum of a E grade (40-49%) and the IG subject must be passed with a minimum of a C-grade (60-69%)

Option 3: AS Levels (4 AS Level subjects + 1 IG subject)

This is probably the more common option chosen by students.Students present a total of five (5) subjects -  4 subjects at AS level and 1 subject at IG level. Again, students must present one subject each from Groups I, II and III. The fourth and fifth subject can be taken from any of the groups. The AS subjects must be passed with a minimum of a D-grade (50-59%) and the IG subject with a minimum grade of C (60-69%)

This option is also subject to the two examination-sitting rule.

Some comments on these options

Two-sitting Rule

The two sitting rule simply means that students presenting AS and IG subjects for exemption should not write them over more than two exam sittings. What is an exam sitting? Cambridge International, for example, offers exams twice a year - in May/June and October/November. If a student writes some of his exams in May/June and some in October/November in the same calendar year, this will count as ONE exam sitting. Some subjects like Afrikaans are only offered in the October/November exam session. If a student writes such a subject, he/she can then count the following May/June exam session with the October/November exam session as ONE sitting. For example, if a student writes Afrikaans in October/November 2021, he/she can count the May/June 2022 exam session with the October/November 2021 as ONE sitting. The same would apply to subjects like Portuguese or German which are only examined in the May/June session.

The exam sittings do not have to be consecutive. It is possible to write IG exams and two years later to write the AS exams and count them both for exemption. In this case the IG exams would count as one sitting and the AS exams would count as the second exam sitting.

Why is there a two sitting rule? I am not sure of the official reason, but I do think it has to do with a student's ability to study under pressure at university level. When students come with too many IG and AS certificates showing one or two subjects per exam session, stretched over three or more years, the universities cannot be confident that such a student is able to complete a university degree in three or four years.

Converting AS to A levels

It is possible to write A levels in stages. Stage 1 would be writing the AS exams and stage 2 would be the remainder of the A level exams, known as A2. USAf requires that the A2 exams be written with 13 months of the AS level exams to count. A student has a maximum of two chances of counting an AS level result towards an A level.

University requirements

The fact that a student may qualify for a certificate of exemption does not imply that the university is obliged to accept the student or that the student meets the requirements of the particular faculty. For example, the medical faculty of the University of Pretoria requires a minimum of 6 AS subjects. It is therefore very important that students and parents familiarize themselves with the requirements of the particular faculty at a particular university.

Most universities have developed an APS score whereby they allocate points to marks achieved by the students in their final exams, including  AS/A levels and IG. Faculties will stipulate what is the minimum APS score a student must achieve to be admitted to that course. The APS score is usually worked out on the student's top six or seven marks depending whether they count life orientation or not. Students who only do five subjects may find that they do not achieve the required the APS score. I recommend that students study at least six IG subjects and then if they only take four of those subjects to AS level, they have at least 3 to 5 extra points from the sixth IG subject which can help enormously. Some universities specify for each particular degree programme which AS level subject they require for registration. 

Summary of requirements for exemption

Subject choice:

  • Must have a Group I subject (First language -  English)
  • Must have a Group II subject (Second or additional language)
  • Must have a Group III subject (3rd language, biology, chemistry, combined science, coordinated science, mathematics, physics or physical science)
  • If offering a subject from Group V, then must have Maths at IG level with at least a C-grade.

Minimum grades:

  • A Level subjects - E grade (40-49%)
  • AS Level subjects - D grade (50-59%)
  • IG subjects - C grade (60-69%)

 Universities South Africa (USAf) subject groups

USAf has divided the recognized subjects into five groups. Cambridge International and Edexcel have also divided their subjects into groups which are not the same as the USAf groups. To obtain an exemption, a student must take subjects from the different groups as mentioned above. What subjects are in what USAf groups?

Group I: First Language

Group I is first language: This is a compulsory subject which students must offer at either AS level or A level. English first language may be offered at IG level if a student offers two or more subjects from Groups III, IV and V at A level, although some university courses may still require English at AS level.

The Group I subjects include English language (Cambridge International Course code: 9093) or English Language and literature (Cambridge International Course code: 8695).

Note that although English literature (Cambridge Course code: 9695) is a recognized subject, it does not meet any group requirement and therefore will not count towards a university exemption. Students wanting to take literature should either take the English language and literature (8695) or take Literature as an additional subject to those necessary for exemption.

Group II: Second language

This is another compulsory group. Students can choose between a number of languages including local languages like Afrikaans, IsiZulu and Setswana, as well as a choice of foreign languages like, French, German and Italian to mention but a few.

While many may bemoan the idea of studying a second language, research has shown that there are many benefits to learning a second language. It is however, important to start early with a second language.

Group III and IV

Group III subjects are a third language, biology, chemistry, maths, physics which are all available at both IG and AS/A Levels. Combined science and coordinate science are both IG level subjects that covers biology, physics and chemistry in one subject.

Group IV subjects include: art and design, biology, chemistry, economics, environmental management, geography, history, mathematics, music, and physics.

Students must at least one subject from Group III. While Groups III and IV have their distinct subjects, they also share a number of subjects such as maths, and the science subjects (biology, chemistry, physics and physical science). I am under the impression that this allows for more options. For example, a student taking a third language would offer that under Group III and maths would then be offered under Group IV. A student taking history on the other hand, would offer history as a Group IV subject and maths then would be offered as  Group III subject.

Group V:

The subjects in Group V which includes: accounting, business studies, computer studies, computing, design and technology, further mathematics, divinity and religious studies will only be considered as recognized subjects if the student has passed at least IG maths with a minimum of a C grade.

Some comments on Cambridge International and Pearson Edexcel subjects

Cambridge International and Pearson Edexcel offer more subjects than are listed in USAf's list of recognized subjects. What if a student wants to study a subject that is not on the USAf list of recognised subjects? Under certain conditions, USAf may be able to approve a subject not on their recommended list of subjects. It would be a good idea to have this confirmed in writing by USAf before embarking on the course of study. Other times, USAf may not approve a subject. If the particular university will accept the subject, then one could take it as a sixth subject, making sure that the other five subjects would meet the requirements for an exemption. If the university does not recognize the subject either, one may choose to do it as a seventh and additional subject to give extra background or one may need to drop it altogether.

Cambridge International and USAf have produced a very useful brochure which explains the conditions and requirements to gain exemption for entry to South Africa public universities.

Applying to USAf for an exemption with International AS/A Levels

I have personally found the application process for an exemption straight forward. Once the provisional results of the AS/A level exams have been issued, it is possible to apply to USAf for an exemption. This can be done in person at the USAf offices in Pretoria (the easiest!) or it can be done through the post or courier or electronically either by e-mail, fax or online.

To apply, you will need the following

  • Completed Form M30 (available on the USAf matriculation board website)
  • Notarized copies of the Cambridge certificates if applying not in person. (Note that USAf will not accept copies certified by a Commissioner of oaths - they must be notarized) These must be couriered or posted to USAf. Do not send the original documents as they are very expensive to replace.
    If you are applying in person, then you can take the original Cambridge documents with you which USAf will then copy and certify.
  • Certified copy of the student's ID book or card. (This can be certified by a Commissioner of oaths).
  • A letter of acceptance from the university or tertiary institution
  • Exemption fee. This is paid either by credit card, debit card or EFT but no cash will be accepted. The fee is about R610 (2021)

For more information regarding USAf exemption, see their website. Look under applications for the M30 form and how to apply.

Some misconceptions to be cleared up

The exemption certificate is not a final school leaving certificate. USAf does not collate the various Cambridge certificates or Pearson Edexcel certificates into one final 'matric' equivalent certificate. At the end of each exam session, Cambridge International or Pearson Edexcel will issue a student with a certificate showing the results of the subjects written in that exam session. That certificate or certificates will constitute the student's school-leaving certificate. USAf will consider these certificates and if the student meets the required conditions in terms of subject choice and marks, they will issue an exemption certificate which will allow the student to be admitted to study at university — if accepted by the university.

The fact that a student may qualify for a certificate of exemption does not imply that the university is obliged to accept the student or that the student meets the requirements of the particular faculty