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Who Participates in Higher Education?

Participation in higher education has increased steadily, but there are ongoing inequities in who participates. This page examines participation by race, gender and nationality.

Participation by Race

The South African higher education system developed to meet the needs of the white population. Under Apartheid, institutions were developed to offer segregated education to black students, but the numbers of black students completing higher education remained small. Since 1994, students have been free to enrol in any institution and more and more black students have sought to enter higher education. However, equity has not yet been achieved.

Table 1 Headcount enrolments in public higher education by race, 2004 to 2008

The proportion of African students in the public higher education system increased from 49% in 1995 to 64% in 2008, but this is still some 15% less than the proportion of Africans in the South African population. The graph below shows the proportional representation of students of different races in public higher education and compares it with the racial composition of the population. From this it is clear that proportionally more white and Indian students enrol while African and coloured students are underrepresented.

Figure 1 Headcount student enrolments in public higher education by race, 2004 to 2008 

The participation rate is calculated as the total headcount enrolments as a percentage of the total population between the ages of 20 - 24. For 2008 the participation rates by race are reflected in the graph below. Overall, South Africa has a participation rate of 16.6% and the target, according to the National Plan for Higher Education is 20%.

Figure 2 Participation rates (in public higher education) by race, 2008

The difference in participation by race is particularly pronounced at the postgraduate level. More white and Indian students continue to postgraduate study.

Figure 3 Proportional enrolments in public higher education by race and level of study, 2008 

Participation by Gender

During the last five years the gender distribution in South African higher education has not changed significantly. In 2008 there were 450 651 women enrolled in the public higher education section, which constituted 56% of the total headcounts enrolment for that year. According the population estimates provided by Statistics South Africa, women constituted around 52% of the South African population in 2008.

Figure 4 Headcount student enrolments in public higher education by gender, 1998 and 2008

At the undergraduate and honours levels, more women enrol than men, but at the postgraduate level there are more men than women. The small numbers of master's and doctoral students mean that, overall, there are more women enrolled than men.

Figure 5 Proportion of men and women enrolling in public higher education by qualification level, 2008

Participation by Nationality

Ninety-two percent of students enrolled in South African public higher education are South African. Eight percent are foreign nationals. The overall proportion of foreign students in public higher education averaged 7% from 2000 to 2008, but the number of foreign students increased from 44 873 in 2000 to 63 964 in 2008.

The proportion of foreign students enrolling is higher in postgraduate programmes, than in undergraduate programmes.

Figure 6 Enrolments in public institutions by nationality and qualification level, 2008 

These proportions have increased between 2000 and 2008, particularly in postgraduate programmes.

Figure 7 Enrolments of foreign students by qualification level, 2000 and 2008

Most foreign students come from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region. South African also attracts a small number of students from the rest of African and from other parts of the world.

The distribution of foreign students by region is as follows:

Figure 8 Foreign students enrolling in public institutions by region, 2008

Further resources on participation

CHE, 2009. Higher Education Monitor No. 8: The State of Higher Education in South Africa
CHE, 2009. Higher Education Monitor No. 7: Postgraduate studies in South Africa – a statistical profile


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