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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 enroll in any institution and more and more black students have sought to enter higher education. The matter of equity is still great area of contention. For this reason it is still valuable and essential to look at the participation of particular race groups in the sector.

Table 1 Headcount enrolments in public higher education by race, 2005 to 2010

The enrolments of African students in the public higher education system increased from 49% in 1995 to 67% in 2010. However, this is still 12% less than the proportion of Africans in the South African population and 17% less than the proportion of Africans in the population age group of 20-24 years. 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 entire population. From this it is clear that proportionally more White and Indian students enroll while African and Coloured students are underrepresented.

Figure 1 Headcount student enrolments in public higher education by race, 2005 to 2010

We find it useful to look at the participation rates and how each race group is represented. The participation rate is calculated as the total headcount enrolments as a percentage of the total population between the ages of 20 – 24. For 2010 the participation rates by race are reflected in the graph below. Overall for 2010, South Africa has a participation rate of 18% and the target, according to the National Plan for Higher Education is to reach 20% within 10 to 15 years from the drafting of the plan.

Figure 2 Participation rates (in public higher education) by race, 2010

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, 2010

Participation by gender

Figure 4 Headcount student enrolments in public higher education by gender, 2000, 2005 & 2010

During the last ten years the gender distribution in South African higher education has changed significantly. In 2010 there were 512 570 women enrolled in the public higher education section, which constituted 57% of the total headcounts enrolment for that year. According the population estimates provided by Statistics South Africa, women constituted around 51% of the South African population in 2010.

At the undergraduate and honours levels, more women enroll than men, but at the master's and doctoral levels 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, 2010


Participation by nationality

Ninety-four percent of students enrolled in South African public higher education are South African. Six percent are foreign nationals. The overall proportion of foreign students in public higher education averaged 7% from 2000 to 2010.
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, 2010

These proportions changed significantly between 2000 and 2010, particularly in postgraduate programmes. Postgraduate foreign enrolments increased from 10% in 2000 to 13% in 2010.

Figure 7 Enrolments of foreign students by qualification level, 2000 and 2010

Seventy-two percent of 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, 2010


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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