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Poor access to higher education in South Africa is a disaster in waiting

Unless something momentous is done – and urgently too, the current trend in the higher education sector suggests South Africa may lose its position as a leading economy on the continent.

Youth unemployment, insecurity, a growing rate of inequality, and an acute shortage of skills are mere symptoms of a deeply rooted problem that can be traced to poor access to higher education.

Coupled with the drop-out rate at the grade school level – that has reached a catastrophic peak – as well as a drastically low pass rate at the grade 12 exit level, the future for today’s youth population in the country is not looking very promising.

Read this related article also: More South Africans want Higher Education.

Gloom and doom: Any hope at all?

That South Africa is the most industrialised economy in Africa, yet its local youth population is not comparatively skilled is no news, considering that many of the industries in the sprawling country are populated by foreigners from other African countries and beyond.

What is more frightening is the possibility of further resentment – and even violent attacks – of skilled foreign workers who the local youth population regularly blame for taking all the jobs.

Tied to that fear is capital flight.

An acute lack of the requisite skills to run various kinds of enterprises in different sectors is a recipe for industries to move their capital, machinery, and technological know-how to other countries that have comparatively higher-skilled labour among its youth population.

It is simple economics; a function of gaining higher profit as a result of quick access to local labour with the right skills and motivation – twin characteristics grossly lacking in SA’s labour environment at the moment.

At the forefront of this poor access to higher education – and subsequently, the much-needed skills to power the SA economy – are the closely related problems of inadequate infrastructure (and tutors) and the inability of many prospective students to pay the necessary fees.

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26 public universities not sufficient for the population

26 public universities not sufficient for the populationIn 1994, at the switch to full democracy, South Africa had about 500 000 students enrolled in 36 public institutions and 300 private schools of higher learning.

Fast-forward 25 years later, 1 070 000 students were registered to study various undergraduate courses at the nation’s (now stratified and fragmented) 26 universities during the 2018 academic year.

Similarly, 1 238 000 enrolled to study at the 50 registered Technical and Vocational Education Training institutions (TVET) scattered across the vast country.

While these figures may look impressive on paper, the reality is that the opportunities are not enough, in that many more young people qualify every year and are willing to get into the system – particularly into public universities.

In other words, yearly intake has more than doubled compared with the 1994 numbers while, on the other hand, the infrastructure and number of tutors have not increased correspondingly to match the explosive growth that keeps rising yearly.

This explains why the current government is striving to expand entrance opportunities into these institutions so that they can collectively accommodate a minimum of 1 500 000 by 2030.

Commendable as that may seem, it will take 11 years (from 2019) to achieve such and that is quite a long time in the life of a country given that many young people will remain shut out of the university system perpetually, leaving them with only basic numerical, literary, technological, scientific, and communication skills acquired in grade school.

In effect, the country is slowly, but steadily, building an army of poorly educated people that will not have the necessary skills and intellectual capacity to function in a fast-transforming world where science, technology, and innovation will rule.

The inability to pay school fees keeps shutting out many prospective students

The inability to pay school fees keeps shutting out many prospective students

Like many challenges in South African, the inability to pay for higher education can be traced to the Rainbow Nation’s chequered past.

Whereas there has been some improvement in the number of the local black population who enter and exit the university system over the years, the statistic is still skewed in favour of the white population.

Year after year, the previously disadvantaged population is still finding it difficult to gain access to higher education because of a lack of funds, largely because their parents (or guardians) are not adequately empowered economically.

While the government-sponsored DHEST Bursary Scheme must be lauded and encouraged further the support it offers indigent students does not seem enough.

The Department of Higher Education, Science and Technology initiative has a mandate to fully subsidise higher education and training for poor SA citizens and working people (with a family income of R350 000 or less per year) in public universities and TVET colleges.

Delivered by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), the department’s effort requires much more funding from the relevant stakeholders (including the national government).

During the 2017/18 academic year, NSFAS disbursed R14,1bn to 200,339 students enrolled in 50 TVET colleges and 260,002 students studying at the 26 public universities.

A further breakdown of this figure showed that R2,0bn was spent to assist the students at the TVET colleges while R12,1bn covered the cost of educating the students at the universities.

Nice stats, right?


In April 2019, STATS SA cited the Higher Education and Skills report which presented the alarming news that 51% (or just over half) of young people aged 18-24 claimed they did not have the financial capacity or other means to pay tuition for higher education.

This means, in effect, that about 1,4 million young people in that age category could not go to university or other higher institutions because they had no money to pay the fees.

The report further indicated that only 7,4% of young people aged 20-24 who come from the lowest household income quintile graduated with bachelors degrees or similar qualifications rated NQF Level 7 while as many as 47% in the same category come from homes in the highest household income quintile.

Thus, it is easy to deduce that young people from more impoverished homes are among the majority shut out of the higher education system – of no fault of theirs, even when qualified to be admitted.

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Conclusion: The implications

Conclusion: The implications

The correlation between higher education, development, security, and industrialisation is glaring and unmistakable.

After several recent surveys, the  Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) unveiled a list of the most educated countries in the world.

Top of the list is Canada, followed by Japan, Israel, South Korea, and the UK.

Others that made the top-ten bracket include the USA, Australia, Finland, Norway, and Luxembourg.

The report further shows that South Africa sits at the very bottom of the OECD list – with only 7,44% of its 58 million-strong population possessing a degree acquired from a tertiary institution.

The implications are staggering.

If education at the tertiary level is a crucial metric to measure the development and advancement of a nation, it then means that South Africa is not doing well at the moment – and the future is, unfortunately, not very promising either.

This is the moment for politicians and administrators at the national, provincial, and municipal levels to put aside all infighting and instead show more interest in educating the future generation.

It has become urgent to ensure that the country is peopled by well-educated men and women with the necessary skills to keep the economy running.

There is no other prescription better or more urgent than purposeful higher education that can be recommended to promote and guarantee enhanced security, job provision, reduction of inequality, and prosperous society.

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Regenesys Business School


Regenesys Business School