SOUTH AFRICA: Black graduates quadruple in two decades

In a country still struggling to overcome the legacy of apartheid education, data reflecting a four-fold increase in the number of black African graduates from South African universities since 1991 has been hailed as an indication of a successfully transforming higher education sector.

"Considering where the country was 20 years ago, this is a remarkable achievement," South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) researcher Marius Roodt told University World News. "This shows that there is greater access to tertiary education for Africans, and bodes well for the skills crisis," he said.

According to data from the SAIRR's latest South African Survey published this month, 8,514 black Africans - excluding coloureds (people of mixed race) and Indians - were awarded degrees in 1991. In 2008 that figure had rocketed to 36,970, representing an increase of 334%.

Significantly, the SAIRR data, which was sourced from the Department of Higher Education and Training, also shows that the universities accounting for the majority of degree awards in South Africa in 2008 are all former whites-only institutions. Eight universities out of a total of 23 institutions accounted for nearly two-thirds of all degrees awarded.

At the top of the list is the distance University of South Africa with 12.8% of degree awards, followed by the University of Pretoria with 11.6%, North West University with 7.9% and the University of KwaZulu-Natal with 7.8%. Together with the University of Cape Town (5.9%), the University of Johannesburg (7.6%), Stellenbosch University (6.4%) and the University of the Witwatersrand (5.8%), they account for 65.8% of all degrees conferred in 2008.

In a statement that hinted at concerns around the marginalisation of formerly black institutions, Roodt said that "other universities, especially historically-disadvantaged universities, need to be supported, and become centres of excellence in their own right." But this could not be at the cost of already successful universities, he said.

Apartheid legislation in the form of the Extension of University Education Act of 1959 restricted the admission of black students to formerly white institutions. The act was formally repealed by the Tertiary Education Act of 1988. Since democracy in 1994, the pace of racial integration in universities has intensified, assisted by government-directed mergers of certain institutions and individual institutional transformation efforts.

University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) Vice-chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba, who heads one of the country's largest contact universities with around 40,000 students, said that 60% or 24,000 of the university's students were currently black Africans and this was the result of a "long and careful process of planning and monitoring" at UKZN.

Makgoba said the fact that the growth in black graduate numbers was taking place in formerly-white institutions was also a reflection of the greater capacity of those institutions to absorb increased numbers, combined with the need for transformation.

"Formerly advantaged institutions obviously had much better capacity. So when the need for change arose, it was clear they could absorb a greater proportion of students than formerly black institutions, for which racial transformation was also less of an issue."

He said while the drop-out rates across the tertiary sector should be "of concern" for all higher educational stakeholders, the de facto increase in black African graduates was an indication of improved access to tertiary education for African students.

Makgoba said the more moderate increase in white students, 14%, was to be expected given that the needs of this sector were largely being met before the end of apartheid. "The shape of the higher education sector was determined historically, so you would expect to see greater increase in black students, not white," he said.

Roodt agreed, saying the smaller increase in whites "was expected, as they were coming off a much smaller base". According to the SAIRR figures, 27,616 whites were awarded degrees in 1991. In 2008, this figure had increased to 31,527.

Among the coloured and Indian populations, the increases were more significant: coloured graduates increased by 125% over the 20-year period, from 2,347 in 1991 to 5,286 in 2008, while Indian graduates increased by 194%, from 2,333 in 1991 to 6,857 in 2008.

Out of a total number of 80,803 degrees awarded in South Africa in 2008, 45.8% of these were awarded to black Africans, 39% to whites, 8.5% to Indians and 6.5% to coloureds. According to 2010 estimates from Statistics South Africa, black Africans make up 79.4% of a total population of 49.9 million, while whites make up 9.2%, coloureds 8.8% and Indians 2.6%.

While the racial student profiles at universities may be changing to reflect national demographics, the increase in graduate numbers also reflects intense pressure on the system to expand. "The statistics reveal the need for greater access to tertiary education," said Makgoba.

Roodt said the fact that universities haven't coped with the full extent of demand for places was evident in the long queues of applicants outside a number of universities at the start of the registration processes earlier this month. At the University of Johannesburg in particular, it was reported that about 63,400 people had applied to study at the institution which could only offer 13,000 first-year places.