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Who Participates in Higher Education?

Participation in higher education has seen increased transformation and the gaps and inequality diminished over the years post-apartheid, but there are ongoing inequities in who participates. This page will look at participation by race, gender and nationality.

Participation by Race

In the days before the end of apartheid the South African higher education system mainly catered for the needs of the white population. Segregated education was established for black students. Only a small number of Black students managed to complete their studies. The higher education system became more open to all race groups. Black students could then now enroll at any public higher education institution. Although the enrolments numbers of Black students continue to increase over the years, the equity benchmark has not yet been reached.

Table 1 Headcount enrolments in public higher education by race, 2006 to 2011

The proportion of African students in the public higher education system grew by 12% from 2006 to 2011, an increase from 451 106 in 2006 to 640 442 in 2011. Although African enrollments increased from 49% in 1995 to 68% in 2011, this is still 14% 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 enroll while African and Coloured students are still underrepresented.

Figure 1 Headcount student enrolments in public higher education by race, 2006 to 2011

The participation rate is calculated as the total headcount enrolments as a percentage of the total population between the ages of 20 – 24. For 2011 the participation rates by race are reflected in the graph below. Overall for 2011, South Africa has a participation rate of 17%. This is down from 2010 where the participation rate was 18%. Participation rates are highly dependent on population figures and for 2011 we could use actual census data instead of population estimates which was the case for 2010. 

The higher education system has been given a goal of 20% of participation rate within 10 to 15 years from the inception of the National Plan for Higher Education in 2001.

Figure 2 Participation rates (in public higher education) by race, 2011

The participation rates for Whites are a great deal higher than that of Africans and Coloureds. Indians also have a very large participation rates compare to their population numbers in South Africa. The participation rates for the African and Coloureds have increased in recent years but are still relatively low. 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, 2011

Participation by Gender

Figure 4 Headcount student enrolments in public higher education by gender, 2001, 2006 and 2011

During the last ten years the gender distribution in South African higher education has changed significantly. In 2011 there were 542 997 women enrolled in the public higher education section, which constituted 58% of the total headcounts enrolment for that year. The population census data of 2011 provided by Statistics South Africa showed that women constituted around 51% of the South African population and 50% for the 20-24 old year age group. The proportion of women enrolled in the public higher education institutions poses a new inequality especially compared to the proportion of women in the population age group of 20-24 years old.

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 although the proportion of women increased slightly in the last five years. The small numbers of master's and doctoral students mean that, overall, there are more women enrolled than men in the system.

Figure 5 Proportion of men and women enrolling in public higher education by qualification level, 2011


Participation by Nationality

Ninety-three percent of students enrolled in South African public higher education are South African. Seven percent are foreign nationals. The overall proportion of foreign students in public higher education averaged 7% from 2001 to 2011, while the number of foreign students increased from 39 280 in 2001 to 70 060 in 2011.

The proportion of foreign students enrolling is higher in postgraduate programmes (14%), than in undergraduate programmes (6%).

Figure 6 Enrolments in public institutions by nationality and qualification level, 2011

Figure 7 Enrolments of foreign students by qualification level, 2001 and 2011

Most foreign students come from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region (74%). South African also attracts a small number of students from the rest of African and from other parts of the world. However the proportions of these students remain basically unchanged through the years.

The distribution of foreign students by region is as follows:

Figure 8 Foreign students enrolling in public institutions by region, 2011


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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