Catalyse social mobility through the success of students

South Africa is characterised by deeply embedded structural inequalities, high unemployment, and intergenerational transmission of disadvantage. However, amidst these challenges, there exists opportunity for change.

Employment and earnings returns to postsecondary qualifications are large, so graduation from postsecondary education can play a key role in catalysing upward social mobility. Recognising this, the Siyaphumelela (“We Succeed”) initiative seeks to broaden evidence-based postsecondary student success strategies across South Africa.

At the recent 2023 Siyaphumelela Network Conference the keynote by Professor Murray Leibbrandt highlighted the link between student success and social mobility in South Africa. As the outgoing director of the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) and the director of the African Centre of Excellence for Inequality Research at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Leibbrandt’s insights are backed by extensive research experience and expertise.

His presentation, ‘Catalysing Social Mobility Through Student Success’ foregrounded the complex and challenging contexts from which students come, but also the important contributions that delegates make through supporting students.

“How do you tackle [the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage]? Well, you tackle it by doing whatever you can in your own spaces to promote social mobility, to promote the opportunities for the more disadvantaged members of our society to actually move ahead. You, and all of us, are crucially important in supporting students through the postsecondary milieu,” said Leibbrandt.

The texture of inequality and (im)mobility

Leibbrandt exposed the grim nature of inequality in South Africa in his keynote. As illustrated in the figure below, the upper end of the income distribution controls a disproportionate share of income, with this share being amongst the highest globally.

“What share of the income in our country do the richest 10% have available to them to change their lives, to put their kids in good schools etc.? The share has always been extremely high, close to 50%, but as a reflection of the fact that our inequality hasn’t gone down at all, over the post-apartheid years it's actually been rising sharply, so the richest 10% of the population have 60% of our income to work with and spend on their children. It’s not a productive situation. That’s not how you build a flourishing society,” he said.

Source: World Inequality Database

Leibbrandt also explained that low intergenerational mobility compounds this issue: “I find it completely devastating that if your parents are right at the bottom 5% of the earnings distribution you’ve got a 95% chance of being there too. As you move up the earnings distribution, you’re moving from a situation of passing on disadvantage to passing on advantage, because lack of mobility at the top end means that you're passing on your advantage to your children.”

Post-school attainment and mobility

While recognising an array of policy approaches aimed at fostering upward mobility, Leibbrandt’s talk centred on the pivotal role of postsecondary education. Data from the National Income Dynamics Study, which also underpins the figures on intergenerational mobility, paints a revealing picture in the figure below: in 2017, degree holders had a 93% chance of being employed, 15 percentage points above those with a school-exit certificate (commonly referred to as ‘matric’), and earned roughly four times as much as those with a matric only.

Source: Branson, Culligan and Tonini (see reference list and Leibbrandt's presentation for more information.

However, the importance of postsecondary qualifications has not necessarily resulted in an increase in these. Spotlighting the figure below from the Siyaphambili interactive website, Leibbrandt said the share of youth (25-34) with a diploma, bachelor's degree or higher (the level providing the highest potential of upward mobility) has largely remained constant since 1994 and continues to be strongly stratified by space and race. This serves as a stark reminder of the urgency of prioritising student success initiatives, ensuring that the potential of postsecondary education is unlocked for a broad spectrum of individuals, regardless of their background.

Source: Siyaphambili interactive website

“We’re coming to the business end of this talk in a sense… the social mobility that’s going to transform our country. We've shown the importance of post-secondary schooling and now we're saying, okay who are the target people that are going to be the heart of this transformation? They're walking into our institutions, and we need to know what that looks like,” Leibbrandt emphasised.

Leibbrandt then showcased key insights from the Siyaphambili Project at SALDRU on linking student-level institutional data to their family and socioeconomic background.

Delving deeper: student access and success

In South Africa, a comprehensive system-wide database known as the Higher Education Management Information System (HEMIS) tracks students’ progress through the educational system, but it doesn’t capture information about family and socioeconomic backgrounds. The data does, however, include students’ home postal codes.

In an attempt to address this gap in the HEMIS data, the Siyaphambili team uses geospatial information to match students’ postal codes to average Census 2011 community income information (see Culligan in reference list).

For the analysis presented here, they then divide the population of students entering undergraduate full-time diploma or bachelor contact programs at university in 2015 into five quintiles, with those in quintile one reflecting the worst-off 20% of students. The figure below reflects the distribution of postal code quintiles, where ‘no data’ indicates that no students from those postal codes were enrolled in 2015.

Leibbrandt cautioned, however, that “We use the average income of that postal code as a reflection of the socio-economic status within the postal code. We therefore need to assume that students’ socioeconomic circumstances are well represented by the average characteristics of the postal code in which they originate.”

In reality, students are likely to come from the upper end of the socio-economic distribution within their postal code rather than dispersed uniformly throughout the socio-economic distribution. Thus, the postal code socio-economic measures – although representative of the mean household in the postal code – may not be representative of post-school students’ households in the postal code.

With this in mind, the team classifies students from quintile 1-3 postal codes as lower income, recognising that it is important that an updated picture is obtained when the latest census data are released.

They next calculate the share of students at each of South Africa’s 26 universities from lower-income postal codes, as well as the share of those lower-income students who graduate on time (also called minimum time), and in one or two additional years: minimum time (N) plus 1 (N+1) and N+2.

Graduation is chosen as a measure of success given its link to labour-market returns and, therefore, upward social mobility. Time to graduation is also relevant in the context of the state financial aid policy.

Students are currently supported for N+1 years (where N is the number of years allocated to a qualification), but due to budgetary pressures there is talk of reducing this to N. Delayed graduation, thus, has implications for funding access and, therefore, mobility.

Lower-income access across universities

The figure below reflects the share of students at each university from lower-income postal codes. In some institutions the share of students is low, but this can reflect a large number of students (and thus potential contribution to social mobility). For example, 33% of University of Pretoria students come from lower-income postal codes, but this translates to 2,911 students, a similar number to the University of Venda, which has the highest share of students from lower-income postal codes.

Note to figure: The range of activities across undergraduate and postgraduate levels determines whether an institution is classified as teaching-led (university of technology - UoT), comprehensive, or research-led (traditional university). The predominant teaching modality at all institutions in South Africa, except for the University of South Africa, is face-to-face (contact learning).

Next, these shares are plotted against the share of lower-income students graduating in N, N+1, and N+2. There is a positive correlation between lower-income access and graduating on time – those institutions admitting a greater share of students from lower-income postal codes are more likely to be graduating these students on time (see figure on slides 17 and 18 of the presentation).

The middle and right-hand panels show that this relationship becomes weaker when allowing for additional time to graduation: lower-income students at institutions with lower shares of these students are graduating at similar rates by N+2. The fact that the share of students graduating in N+2 is not at 100% is partly a reflection of students taking longer, and partly a reflection of dropout.

“There’s a crucial policy issue right there and it's about the mobility story – funding students for the extra year could be worth it if they are going to graduate and be part of the social mobility story in the country.”

Labour market success

An important component of the social mobility story to which Leibbrandt refers is that graduation leads to gainful employment. The figure below shows the share of state-funded (National Student Financial Aid Scheme) graduates from 2015 who were (formally) employed in 2017 (see Wildschut, Rogan & Mncwango in reference list). It suggests that those admitting a high share of lower-income students, and graduating a larger share on time, are not necessarily doing better in terms of employment absorption rates.

This reflects both the importance of supporting lower-income students at more ‘selective’ institutions, but also improving the employability of graduates from universities on the left-hand side of the figure.

The figure also reflects a key point for the Siyaphumelela network about the complexity of the student success initiative – success encompasses inclusive access, constructive completion, and graduate prosperity.

Leibbrandt concluded by affirming that transforming the nation through upward mobility lies within institutions' realm to impact on student success and graduation: “There’s a lot that happens before people come into institutions, but then what happens inside the institutions is your moment to have an impact on the mobility project, on graduation. Then graduates go ahead and transform our country. This is our dream, right?”

Source: Based on Wildschut, Rogan and Mncwango (see reference)


Branson, N., Culligan, S., & Tonini, S. (2019). What and where you study matters in the labour market: Unpacking how employment and wages vary by qualification and institution type (Report). SALDRU, University of Cape Town. South Africa.

Culligan, S. (2022). Using census, institutional and geospatial data to estimate the socio-economic profile of post-school students by institutional type (Masters thesis). University of Cape Town. South Africa.

Wildschut, A., Rogan, M., & Mncwango, B. (2020). Transformation, stratification and higher education: Exploring the absorption into employment of public financial aid beneficiaries across the South African higher education system. Higher Education, 79 (6), 961–979.