2013 Higher Education Data: Participation

Who are those who participate in Higher Education?

The participation profile in the South African higher education system has changed drastically over the last 20 years, in terms of race, gender and size of the system. This section will show those who entered and exited the public higher education institutions up to 2012.  Below are some navigational links to the areas we will be looking at.

Student racial profile

Historically the South African government prioritised the higher education opportunities on white students and the other race groups were marginalized. This also influenced the quality and programme offerings of the various institutions, which were also segregated by race. The resultant effect was low participation rates for black South Africans and, more crucially, generally low completion rates among these students.

Post-apartheid, the sector underwent great change, including a sharp increase in black student participation in public higher education within South Africa. All public higher education institutions are now open to all South Africans, irrespective of their race.

Table 1 Headcount enrolments in public higher education by race, 2008 to 2013

Overall the student enrolments increased by 23% from 2008 to 2013. The African student compliment in particular increased by 34% from 515 058 in 2008 to 689 503 in 2013.African enrollments increased from 64% of all enrolments in 2008 to 70% in 2013. The African representation in the South African population was 80% in 2013, which is shows there is basically a 10% proportional difference between the country’s population and the higher education participation of Africans. 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 South African population. The proportion of African students enrolled is still increasing and is becoming more a reflection of the national population every year. However, the same cannot be said for Coloured students.

Figure 1 Headcount student enrolments in public higher education by race, 2008 to 2013

The racial composition of the South African student population is even more pronounced when participation rates are considered.  South Africa’s participation rates or gross enrolment rates are low in general. The participation rate is calculated as the total headcount enrolments as a percentage of the total population between the ages of 20 – 24 years. For 2012, the participation rates by race are reflected in the graph below. Overall for 2012, South Africa has a participation rate of 19%, which is up from 2011 where the participation rate was 17%. It must be remembered that accurate participation rates are highly dependent on the accuracy of the population figures.

The National Plan for Higher Education in 2001 set the target of a 20% participation rate within 10 to 15 years. This has not been achieved. 

Figure 2 Participation rates (in public higher education) by race, 2013

Figure 2 Participation rates (in public higher education) by race, 2012

The participation rates for Africans and Coloureds are considerably lower than for Whites and Indians. The participation rates for Africans 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, 2013

Student gender profile

Figure 4 Headcount student enrolments in public higher education by gender, 2003, 2008 and 2013

During the eleven years from 2003 to 2013 the gender profile in South African higher education has changed significantly. In 2013 there were 573 698 women enrolled in the public higher education sector, which constituted 58% of the total headcount enrolment for that year. In the South African population in 2013, women constituted approximately 51% of the population and 50% for the 20-24 old year age group of the population. The imbalance in enrolments in higher education has definitely shifted to favour women, especially compared to the population statistics.

However, when qualification level is taken into account the picture shifts. At the undergraduate and honours levels, many more women are enrolled than men, but at the masters and doctoral levels there are more men than women, although the proportion of women has increased slightly over the same period. The number of masters and doctoral students is small and it does not show effect in the general gender profile.

Figure 5 Proportion of men and women enrolling in public higher education by qualification level, 2013


Participation by nationality

Ninety-three percent of students enrolled in South African public higher education in 2013 were South African. The overall proportion of foreign students in public higher education has averaged 7% from 2002 to 2013, while the number of foreign students increased from 48 197 in 2003 to 73 859 in 2013.

The proportion of foreign students enrolled in postgraduate programmes (15%) is higher than those in undergraduate programmes (6%).

Figure 6 Enrolments in public institutions by nationality and qualification level, 2013

Source: HEMIS 2012


There has been significant change in the proportion of postgraduate foreign students to local students over the last eleven years. The foreign postgraduate students increased from 10% in 2002 to 14% in 2012.

Figure 7 Enrolments of foreign students by qualification level, 2003 and 2013

Source: HEMIS 2012

Most foreign students come from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region (73%). South Africa also attracts a small number of students from the rest of Africa and from other parts of the world. However the proportions of these students remained 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, 2013


Age profile of enrolled students

The graph below looks at the age profile of the South African public higher education system and particularly at the differences between race groups. A proportional analysis of the race groups show that a larger percentage Africans enroll after 35 years old while white and Indian students are more likely to enroll before 24 years old.

Figure 9 Headcount enrolments by age grouping for 2013



Field of study

We have four major fields of study: business and commerce (B&C), education (Edu), humanities (Hum) and science, engineering and technology (SET). Below we have a graph showing the enrolment patterns by field of study from 2008 to 2013. The lowest number of enrolments has been, and still is, in education. However, this is also the field with the highest growth rate in enrolments (39%) over that period.



Figure 10 Headcount enrolments by major field of study from 2008 to 2013


The graph shows  a decrease in the proportion of humanities enrolments to other fields especially in 2011, which from the 2012 enrolments started to increase again. All fields have seen growth in terms of absolute numbers enrolled.

The table below shows headcount enrolments by the 20 Classification of Subject Matter (CESM) categories, disaggregated to the fields of study, from 2011 to 2013.


 Table 2 Headcount enrolments by the 20 main fields of study from 2011 to 2013


Overall, between 2011 and 2013 education enrolments increased by only 5%, humanities by 12%, SET by 7%.


Further resources on participation

CHE, 2009. Higher Education Monitor No. 8: The State of Higher Education in South Africa

CHE, 2009. Higher Education Monitor: Postgraduate studies in South Africa – a statistical profile