The current focus of the university sector is on the student protests of the #FeesMustFall campaign. While the agenda of university reform is in the public spotlight, it gives us an opportunity to take a broader view of the university sector in order to understand the sector’s size and shape and, more importantly, the destinations of university graduates in the labour market.
Recently, the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) completed a research report titled Skills Supply and Demand in South Africa for the department of higher education and training, as part of the Labour Market Intelligence Partnership. Drawing on data and information from the report, we are able to unpack the following issues.
All societies and economies are dependent on the education and skill levels of their citizens for their growth and development. The level of education in South Africa is lower than most economically productive countries. So, at a fundamental level, South Africa must raise the level of education of its population to achieve an inclusive growth path.
Much has been written about the quality and outcomes of basic education. The key narrative focuses on the low levels of education, which characterised South Africa in 1994.
Since 2002, we have observed some improvements in educational outcomes; the challenge for basic education is now to increase the pace of these improvements.
The low levels of basic education remain a critical constraint on the education and training system as well as on the labour market.
In 2014, about 140 000 grade 12 pupils completed the matriculation examination with a bachelor’s pass — which means that they could potentially go to university and other tertiary institutions.
What can we say about those who do access university and leave with qualifications?
In 2014, there were about 1.1-million students in the university sector, with 85% registered in public institutions. From 2010 to 2014, university enrolments increased by 8.5%. The university sector is currently made up of 70% black African and 58% female students — and these numbers and shares have increased.
The potential skills gained through a university qualification are best understood by an analysis of the classification of educational subject matter fields.
In 2014, 28% of university enrolments were in business, economics and management studies, 30% in science, engineering and technology programmes and 42% in humanities subjects.
Just over 153 000 individuals graduated with diplomas or degrees from South African universities in 2010. This number increased to just over 185 000 in 2014, that is a 21% increase. In 2014, there were 50 381 business, economics and management sciences graduates (27% of the university completers), 55 574 science, engineering and technology completers (30% of the shares) and 79 420 humanities completers (43% of the shares). Twenty percent of all university completers studied education.
Analysing the areas of scarce skills, we see that, from 2010 to 2014, the number of engineering university completers increased by 39% to 14 000, health science completers increased by 12% to 12 500, and computer and information sciences completers increased by 43% to 6 800.
Although this growth looks commendable, we are starting from a low base and there is still a way to go before the skills supply will meet demand in these critical subject areas.
Although the participation and graduation rates of women have increased, the analysis of qualification differences support gender stereotypes in the academic literature, in that men are more likely to study for hard science, technology and engineering-based subjects, whereas women are focused on what are called softer subjects, such as health, education and social sciences.
Although South Africa has improved the rates of access to and enrolment at universities, it has not done as well with the progression of students and completion of the relevant qualifications.
This is well documented in the Council on Higher Education’s 2013 task team report on the undergraduate curriculum structure, which found that only one in four students in contact institutions graduate in the regulation time.
Completion rates are especially low in engineering and science degrees and diplomas, as well as in the professional commerce degrees, all of which have significance for economic development.
The completion rates for these qualifications are: bachelor of engineering 23%; bachelor of science 23%; engineering diplomas 5%; science diplomas 14%; and commerce degrees 26%.
An important indicator of development for any emerging industrialised country is the level of tertiary education of the population and workforce. In 2014, of the 15.1-million people employed in the country, 3.1-million workers had a tertiary education qualification.
Close to 40% (1.2-million) are higher education graduates and 60% (1.8-million) are diploma and certificate completers.
The employed population with a tertiary education is slowly increasing and in 2014 constituted 20.5% of the employed, compared with 19.3% in 2010.
We further explored the occupations and industrial sectors in which those with degrees worked. Using data from the Statistics South Africa Quarterly Labour Force Survey, we analysed the sectors and occupations that graduates (1.2-million) worked in and, in particular, we examined the destinations of those with engineering degrees (118 700). As expected, graduates tended to be employed in high-skilled occupations as managers and senior officials, professionals, technicians and associate professionals.
A stark observation is that three-quarters of all higher education graduates work in two sectors: 50% work in community, social and personal services and 25% work in the financial services sector. A smaller proportion, 8%, work in the manufacturing sector.
The community, social and personal services sector includes a number of government services. It is pleasing to note that 93% of the education, training and development graduates and 86% of health care and health sciences graduates work in the public sector. Half of all humanities graduates are employed in this sector.
One third (31%) of engineering graduates in the labour market work in the financial services sector, 23% work in the manufacturing sector and 15% in the construction sector.
Science, engineering and technology qualifications are versatile, and graduates can move into different fields of work. This has created shortages in the science, technology and engineering occupations. The implication is that we need to enrol much higher numbers in science, engineering and technology courses than are needed by the sector.
The statistics underpin three key insights for our country in efforts to better plan for the provisioning of appropriate skills required by the labour market.
First, continued low levels of basic education remain a critical constraint on the education and training system and the labour market, and need to be a key focus of intervention.
Second, we need to improve progression and success in our post-school education and training system to make optimal use of the pool of matriculants available for transition into the university system.
As has been highlighted, this structure is not a good platform from which to support an inclusive and sustainable economic growth path.
And, last, we need to re-evaluate the structure of the labour market, in which the majority of graduates end up being employed in the social and personal services sector.
Vijay Reddy is executive director of the Education and Skills Development Research Programme at the Human Sciences Research Council. She is co-author of Skills Supply and Demand in South Africa, with Haroon Bhorat, Marcus Powell, Mariette Visser and Fabian Arends