University participation by race

I saw this great post by Africa Check about education statistics in South Africa and I thought that, since we’re currently grappling with the race dynamics in our country, it’s worth visualising some of the stats a bit more intuitively and building on them using some other sources that I’m aware of.

To start with, here are the stats on student enrollment by race from that article. The stats show that white student enrollment (the green line) is artificially high but slowly declining. They also show that the vast majority of enrolled students are black (the black line) and that enrollment within that race group has increased at a far higher rate than any other group (although the data plateaus and only goes up until 2014).

student-enrolment-00a This is unsurprising given that most South Africans are black according to the StatsSA’s 2015 mid-year population estimates:


To get a feel for how ‘skewed’ these figures are by race, I’ve divided the enrollment numbers for each race by the total proportion of the South African population that each race represents. When we look at the data like this, we see that white and Indian students are over-represented in universities given the proportion of the total country population that each group represents:


In 2014, there were 2.2x more Indian students enrolled at universities than we would expect given the proportion of the population that are Indian. Similarly, there were 2.1x more white students enrolled than we would expect. However, as we’ve just seen in the first graph, the actual numbers of enrolled students from each of these race groups are still a minority in absolute terms, and the disparity is decreasing every year (but at a very slow rate).

As usual, these stats aren’t the end of the story though. For example, we haven’t taken a look at how many students that enroll actually finish their degrees nor have we discussed the socio-economic factors that might disproportionately affect some races more than others and contribute to differences in graduation rates. We can get a feel for how these factors play out though thanks to the below infographic from the Mail & Guardian based on work by researcher, Nic Spaull. The infographic summarises the number of university graduates by race. It shows that the number of white graduates has decreased slightly in line with the data we’ve just looked at above. The main story that the data tells though is that the black graduate numbers have dramatically eclipsed graduates from all other races, which is great news because it means that our education dynamics are starting to reset in line with our population figures after years of artificial depression by systemic apartheid structures.

Source: Mail & Guardian

Again, in order to see whether these figures are in line with what we’d expect given the race breakdown of our country, we can do the same analysis as we’ve just done above for enrollment rates. We can divide the proportion of graduates by the proportion of the total population that each race group represents to get a feel for how ‘skewed’ the stats are by race:


When we do this, we see that whites and Indians are even more over-represented as graduates than we would expect. White enrollments are 2.2x higher than expected but their graduation rate is 3.1x higher than expected, while Indian enrollments are 2.1x higher but graduations are 2.8x higher. These disparities could be accounted for by the fact that I’m using different data sources to calculate these figures. However, they could also quantify the impact that socio-economic factors have on the likelihood of a student completing their studies. Slightly fewer black students enroll in university than we would expect (90% of those we expect to enroll do actually enroll) and fewer still graduate (80% of those we would expect to graduate do actually graduate). We’re losing 10% of of black students on enrollment and a further 10% before graduation. Could this be a quantification of the socio-economic factors that prevent black students from graduating or am I expecting too much of the data on hand?

Like my previous post on household income, the intent of this post is not to undermine the very real student struggle taking place right now. As much as events are confusing and frustrating to follow, I am sure those on the ground feel the same way. They have their lived experiences to guide them in the current fight for education though and it’s clear that the status quo is not working for many students. My intent then with these posts is to put some data behind the dynamics at play in our country and to moderate the narrative by showing that change is happening, even if it is not happening fast enough. Knowing how far we’ve come is as important as seeing how far we still have to go.

[UPDATE: You can source education data from the following sources for your own research: HEDA | Council on Higher Education | Cooper 2015 paper (alternative link) | Centre for Higher Education Trust | NSFAS annual reports]

[UPDATE: Africa Check has a great breakdown on university ‘throughput’ rates here that is also worth a read]

[UPDATE: This Nov 2017 Quartz article has some more recent stats]

[UPDATE: Here is Africa Check’s most recent (Feb 2018) post on this topic]

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One Comment

  1. John

    A very interesting factor would be the breakdown of rural vs urban students per race as it might indicate whether urbanised learners have access to better quality education at secondary level or not compared to their counterparts.

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