South Africa's Extension of University Education Act of 1959

The University of South Africa from a distance.

A. Bailey / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

The Extension of University Education Act segregated South African universities by both race and ethnicity. This meant that the law not only decreed that “white” universities were closed to Black students, but also that the universities open to Black students be segregated by ethnicity. This meant that only Zulu students, for instance, were to attend the University of Zululand, while the University of the North, to take another example, was formerly restricted to Sotho students.

The Act was a piece of Apartheid legislation, and it augmented the 1953 Bantu Education Act. The Extension of University Education Act was repealed by the Tertiary Education Act of 1988.

Protests and Resistance

There were widespread protests against the Extension of Education Act. In Parliament, the United Party (the minority party under Apartheid) protested its passage. Many university professors also signed petitions protesting the new law and other racist legislation aimed at higher education. Non-white students protested the act, issuing statements and marching against the Act. There was also an international condemnation of the Act.

Bantu Education and the Decline of Opportunity

South African universities that taught in the Afrikaans languages had already limited their student bodies to white students, so the immediate impact was to prevent non-white students from attending the Universities of Cape Town, Witswatersrand, and Natal, which had formerly been comparatively open in their admissions. All three had multi-racial student bodies, but there were divisions within the colleges. The University of Natal, for instance, segregated its classes, while the University of Witswatersrand and the University of Cape Town had color bars in place for social events. The Extension of Education Act closed these universities.

There was also an impact on the education students received at universities that had previously been unofficially “non-white” institutions. The University of Fort Hare had long argued that all students, regardless of color, deserved an equally excellent education. It was an internationally prestigious university for African students. Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and Robert Mugabe were among its graduates. After the passage of the Extension of University Education Act, the government took over the University of Fort Hare and designated it as an institution for Xhosa students. After that, the quality of education declined precipitously, as Xhosa universities were forced to provide the purposely inferior Bantu education.

University Autonomy

The most significant impacts were on non-white students, but the law also reduced the autonomy for South African universities by taking away their right to decide who to admit to their schools. The government also replaced University administrators with people who were seen as being more in line with Apartheid sentiments. Professors who protested the new legislation lost their jobs. 

Indirect Impacts

The declining quality of education for non-whites, of course, had much broader implications. The training for non-white teachers, for instance, was distinctly inferior to that of white teachers, which impacted the education of non-white students. That said, there were so few non-white teachers with university degrees in Apartheid South Africa that the quality of higher education was something of a moot point for secondary teachers. The lack of educational opportunities and university autonomy also limited the educational possibilities and scholarships under Apartheid.


  • Cutton, Merle. “Natal University and the Question of Autonomy, 1959-1962.” Gandhi-Luthuli Documentation Centre, October 2019.
  • “History.” University of Fort Hare, January 10, 2020.
  • Mangcu, Xolela. "Biko: A Life." Nelson Mandela (Foreword), I.B. Tauris, November 26, 2013.
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Thompsell, Angela. "South Africa's Extension of University Education Act of 1959." ThoughtCo, Jan. 2, 2021, Thompsell, Angela. (2021, January 2). South Africa's Extension of University Education Act of 1959. Retrieved from Thompsell, Angela. "South Africa's Extension of University Education Act of 1959." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).