More black students at university, but still starting at a disadvantage

The number of enrolments at universities increased by 40% in 12 years and, on average, white students performed better than black, coloured and Indian first-time undergraduates.

This is according to a report, titled The Changing Size and Shape of the Higher Education System in South Africa and published last month, by research associate Ahmed Essop of the Ali Mazrui Centre for Higher Education Studies at the University of Johannesburg, which focuses on the period between 2005 and 2017.

The dropout rate of black and coloured first-time undergraduate students was higher across all qualifications, according to the report. 

Essop said this week that Indian students also performed better than African and coloured students. He said this was due to a combination of factors such as access to better schooling, language of instruction, access to funding, conducive home environments, and educated parents. 

According to the report, total enrolments at higher education institutions went from about 700 000 in 2005 to more than one million in 2017. 


The report said that even in historically white institutions black students were in the majority, except at Stellenbosch University. 

The headcount of black students at all universities stood at 84.8% in 2017 compared with 14.3% of white students. In 2005 black students comprised 74.5% of the university population while white students made up 25.3%.

(John McCann/M&G)

Stellenbosch University was, however, “making slow but steady progress”. In 2005 black students comprised 28.1% of the university’s population but by 2017 made up 39.1% of the student body.

As a proportion of total headcount enrolments, black students were more evenly spread across the different types of higher education institutions than white students, who were mainly found in research-intensive universities such as the universities of Cape Town, KwaZulu-Natal, Pretoria and the University of the Witwatersrand.

The report also noted that the graduation rate had steadily increased by 57%. Historically black universities, universities of technology and the long-distance learning university, Unisa, produced a large number of these graduates. 

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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