One in 10 new graduates likely to join the brain drain

As tens of thousands of new graduates poured out of South Africa’s universities to hopefully enjoy the summer holidays, an important question for the country is whether they will find jobs next year and where they will go. A major graduate destination survey published earlier this year found that one in 10 is likely to end up abroad – “a significant loss”.

The study was conducted by the Cape Higher Education Consortium, or CHEC, a body set up by the four universities in Western Cape province to coordinate inter-institutional cooperation and academic programme collaboration. It published a report titled Pathways from University to Work.

In late 2012 CHEC surveyed the total 2010 cohort of 24,710 graduates from the universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch and the Western Cape, and Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and received 5,560 responses – a response rate of 22.5% – online or telephonically.

The cohort included graduates who received certificates and diplomas, undergraduate degrees and postgraduates including diplomas, honours, masters and doctorates, and the responses were weighted to reflect the socio-demographic profile of all 2010 graduates.

Graduate destination research is “highly underdeveloped” in South Africa, according to the report, although ‘exit surveys’ have been used by universities to obtain a snapshot of job search behaviour, employment status, entry-level salaries and satisfaction with the university.

Profile of the 2010 cohort

The CHEC study examined socio-economic data to provide a profile of the 2010 Western Cape graduate cohort and their institutions, using data that universities submit to the government and data from the survey itself.

Examining regional higher education dynamics, the study found that the Western Cape had the second highest graduate output by province: it produced 19% of all of South Africa’s graduates that year, behind the economic powerhouse province of Gauteng (34%).

A second observation was that while 26% of qualifications awarded nationally by higher education institutions in 2010 were postgraduate awards, the Western Cape led all other regions in producing postgraduate qualifications, “at 35.8% of total graduate output”.

A third observation was the size of the international student population within the 2010 cohort, with the University of Cape Town, or UCT, having the greatest proportion – 19% of its total graduate population.

The total number of international students who graduated from South African universities in 2010 was 11,383 – 95% from other African countries – and the Western Cape hosted 2,851 of these graduates, about 25%, said the report.

Given South Africa’s past, perhaps unsurprisingly the study found that for white students in the Western Cape in 2010, 52% had fathers or male guardians and 43% mothers or female guardians with university qualifications. “This figure drops dramatically to 21% and 19% for Africans and 16% and 12% respectively for coloured [mixed race] graduates”.

A significant proportion of the 2010 graduate cohort had attended private schools, about 17%, which is far above the national average of 7.3%. At UCT, an extraordinary 35% of 2010 graduates were from the private school sector.

The study looked at three aspects of higher education that could strengthen the chances of employment after graduation: participation in extra-curricula activity; effective career guidance; and opportunities for internships and work placements during university life.

It found sports organisations to be the most popular extracurricular activities, with student politics and governance “relatively low down on the list”. The University of the Western Cape, or UWC, offered the highest proportion of places for students to participate as teachers and laboratory assistants – 36% – a figure “far higher” than the other three universities.

About 43% of full-time students at the four Western Cape universities received some form of career guidance. Direct access and informal talks with lecturers were the most common form used, followed by attendance at career expos – 25% and 21% respectively – followed by talks by companies on campus.

“Overall, these utilisation rates are low,” said the study, as were participation levels in internships and work placements at UCT, Stellenbosch University or SU, and UWC – just over one in four students were involved.

The Cape Peninsula University of Technology, or CPUT, in contrast and appropriately, “provided 70% of learners with opportunities to acquire first-hand experience of work”.

Low levels of participation in these key pre-employment learning opportunities were ‘warning signals’ to universities “to consider some form of intervention to improve the overall package of career guidance, internships and work placements offered to students”.

Seven pathways to work

The CHEC survey adopted the concept of ‘pathways’ to describe the transition from higher education into work and social life. It identified seven life-course pathways.

Pathway One: The already employed

There were 8,344 ‘mature age’ graduates in the Western Cape 2010 graduate cohort who were employed before studying for the qualification. Of these, 7,415 were employed on 1 September 2012 – 30% of the total cohort. The remaining 929 were either unemployed, studying further or not seeking jobs because of other responsibilities like home care.

Pathway Two: First-time entrants into the labour market

Among the 2010 cohort, there were 14,869 who were entering the labour market for the first time. Of these, 9,707 (65.3%) were employed in the public and private sectors (or self-employed). A further 3,728 were either studying further, employed in the informal economy or not looking for work – for example, care-givers.

Unemployment among first-time entrants was 9.6%. Significantly, the study said, the jobless ratio among ‘mature age’ graduates was just 4.6%. “This is a significant difference, with unemployment among first-timers numerically much larger – at 70% of all unemployed.”

Pathway Three: The self-employed

Only 558 of the total of 24,710 graduates surveyed were self-employed – 2.2% of the cohort. Among the self-employed, 65% were white and 39% female and the type of work ranged from consultancy (35%) to producing goods and services for multiple clients (29%) to selling products of other companies (10%).

The study points out that the self-employed component of the 2010 Western Cape graduate cohort was small at 2.2%, but compared “reasonably well internationally”.

Pathway Four: Graduates employed in the informal sector

This was a very small pathway, with just 1% of the cohort and comprising 191 graduates, said the report, adding that informal sector employment was “most likely a protection against unemployment for the graduates who resorted to informal work”.

Graduate employment high

Looking at all four of these pathways to determine overall trends, the survey suggested that “total employment is high, at 84% with a significant grouping employed by government (36%). Unemployment is measured at about 10%”.

“Employment by race continues to reflect apartheid-era patterns of discrimination,” said the report, with 61% of whites and 58% of Indians employed in the private sector against 35% of Africans and 44% of coloured (mixed race) graduates.

“African and coloured unemployment would be significantly larger if it were not for the public sector, which employs 42% of African and 45% of coloured graduates.”

African graduates still had the largest unemployment rate – at 19% – followed by coloured graduates at 7%. “Indians have the lowest unemployment rate at about 3%.”

There were 17,274 graduates employed in the private, public, self-employed and informal sectors of the national economy.

A strong finding of the study was that 47% of all graduates were employed by the public sector – in education and research (18.2%), health and social work (13.5%), provincial and municipal government (11.6%), and arts, culture and sport (4.1%). “This ‘public good’ aspect of graduate output is an interesting and unexpected finding,” said the report.

The second largest employer was the ‘services’ part of the private sector (25.3%) – including finance, insurance, real estate, IT and business services.

Most of the 2010 graduates, or 61%, were employed as professionals.

The survey results showed relatively high levels of ‘frictional’ unemployment – short-term unemployment experienced during a transitional phase in the life course of many graduates.

There were high levels of ‘frictional’ unemployment in the 2010-12 period, overall 13.9%. Type of qualification was key in reducing frictional unemployment, with degree holders significantly reducing joblessness over the two years – from 17.3% to 9.1% against holders of diplomas and certificates, which increased slightly from 17.0% to 18.1%.

The survey found that graduates employed a range of techniques to find jobs, such as sending out CVs and responding to job ads. But two techniques – finding a job through family and friends, and being asked to apply by a company – “constitute the most commonly used search methods used by graduates”.

Both signified prior knowledge of where to secure employment, which derived from social connections or ‘social capital’, which favour middle-class graduates.

Pathway Five: The unemployed

A critical finding, the report said, was that 10% of graduates were jobless two years after graduating, “with employment peaking among CPUT graduates at 16%”. Jobless rates for Cape Town and Stellenbosch graduates were a relatively low 5% and 6% respectively.

Among the unemployed graduates, 44% had been unemployed during 2012, 38% since 2011, and 18% since 2010.

The survey found that ‘social capital’ was a weak resource for unemployed graduates. The numbers revealed that African students were far more likely to ‘walk from door to door’ (75%) and to approach government employment centres (83%) than whites (9% and 8%). This, the report said, suggests that African graduates “are more desperate to find work”.

The study investigated the correlation between unemployment and school-leaving exam symbols in maths and science, and found that joblessness increases as score symbols decline. However, “graduates with poor maths and science grades are still attaining employment in large numbers”.

Home province during schooling was a significant factor in the employment outcome for many graduates in the 2010 cohort, with joblessness highest among graduates from Limpopo province (19%), North West (17%), Eastern Cape (15%) and Mpumalanga (15%). This, the report said, reflects wide inequalities between provinces in the schooling system.

The survey also found that the vast majority of employed graduates (93%) went to school in the suburbs of major cities and towns in South Africa, while joblessness was higher among graduates who had attended township schools (19% unemployment) or rural villages (14%).

Pathway Six: Continuing higher education

The survey revealed that 31% of the 2010 cohort were registered for further studies, and 94% of them were studying at South African universities with only 6% pursuing degrees abroad. Of these, 42% were registered for a masters, and 9% had progressed to a doctoral degree.

Whites were in a small majority among postgraduate students, comprising 39% of all PhD candidates among the 2010 graduate cohort against 38% who were African. Women were in the majority of continuing students, at 56%.

Pathway Seven: Caregivers

Little is known about the last pathway, comprising 393 graduates or 1.9% of the 2010 cohort. Among them are caregivers, homemakers, people who are ill and beneficiaries of ‘gap years’. The causes of withdrawal from the labour market are “strictly personal”.

Geographical migrations

The report pointed out that there were other transitions that graduates of 2010 traversed that were not reflected in the seven pathways but cut across all of them.

“International migration is the most important of these and it recruits candidates from all four employment pathways described above as well as from full-time students.

“This pathway is beneficial to the region and country if migrants who leave the province and who go overseas come back to South Africa and share their newly acquired expertise. It is wasteful if they do not return.”

The survey indicated that there were 1,381 graduates (5.7%) from the 2010 cohort living outside the country, with another 5.2% indicating they would like to leave South Africa some time in the future.

“This constitutes a brain drain of 10.9% of the original 24 710 graduates – a significant loss.”

There was also national migration, with many graduates moving from the Western Cape to other provinces, especially the huge Gauteng economy.

However, the survey found the Western Cape in a ‘win-win’ situation, because it attracted many students from other regions for higher education study and retained most of them as skilled workers upon graduation.

Among the 2010 cohort, the Western Cape had a net gain of 3,226 graduates who had come from other provinces but sought jobs in the Western Cape after graduating. “This is a 15% gain in high-skill personnel for the province.”


The survey provided a detailed picture of the Western Cape’s graduate labour market – one that had simply not been available before, and enabled some generalisation for the years before and afterwards.

The challenge for the future would be to complement the quantitative work with “qualitative work on how employers value the various graduate attributes acquired in higher education and transferred to the workplace”, the report said.

The most important step, however, would be to repeat the survey every five years. “Only then can medium- to long-term trends be measured. The time for sporadic and occasional efforts to research graduate destinations is over.”

The challenge was to creatively institutionalise graduate destination instruments into the five-yearly reporting requirements of universities across the country.