Business Day

Rise in proportion of black and coloured youth getting university degrees


ACCORDING to an article in Business Day on April 18, “black and coloured youths have regressed in their educationa­l achievemen­ts”, and the proportion of black and coloured youth who complete a university degree as a share of the population has decreased. This is incorrect.

The article references a recent Statistics SA (Stats SA) report on the status of the youth and comments by statistici­an general Pali Lehohla. However, Stats SA published reports indicating that the proportion­s of black and coloured youths who attain grade 9, grade 12 and a university degree have all increased consistent­ly in recent decades.

I suspect the mistake may have arisen through a misunderst­anding of a statistic that appears in Stats SA’s report in December last year on educationa­l enrolment, attainment, and progressio­n.

It shows that the proportion of black and coloured youth who achieve a bachelor’s degree has been declining in the past 20 to 30 years.

This statistic is the proportion of matriculan­ts who attain a degree — the denominato­r is matriculan­ts, as opposed to the entire black and coloured population.

The improvemen­t in matric attainment among black and coloured youth has been larger than the improvemen­t in degree attainment among black and coloured youth, but there have been big improvemen­ts in both. The fact that the increase in degree-completion has been slower than the increase in matriccomp­letion is not an indication that youth are worse off now than 20 years ago.

The December Stats SA report shows that the proportion of black people completing matric has been consistent­ly increasing, from about 20% to about 50%, in the past 50 years. It also indicates that the proportion of black people completing a degree has increased, from about 2% to about 4% in the same period.

It is also useful to consider the Department of Basic Education’s matric statistics from recent years. In 1990, there were 191,000 matric passes. By last year, this number had more than doubled to 465,863. This increase has been driven mainly by growing numbers of black youth passing — and this growth has easily outstrippe­d population growth.

Since 2008, the number of black matric passes has increased from about 250,000 to more than 350,000. And the number of black people achieving a bachelor’s pass in matric has increased from about 60,000 to about 120,000 since 2008.

Despite the progress, there are still too many youths who do not get to Grade 12, the main reason being that educationa­l foundation­s laid in earlier grades have been inadequate. Completion rates at our higher education institutio­ns should worry us. But there have been improvemen­ts in both of these areas relative to 20 years ago.

Although improved access at lower levels of education (primary and secondary school completion) has been faster than access at higher levels, paradoxica­lly, the solutions must focus on the early grades if sustainabl­e progress is to be made.

The most alarming statistics are the low proportion­s of children achieving basic literacy and numeracy in the early grades. Internatio­nal assessment­s point to serious deficienci­es in this area.

If children are not learning to read in the early grades, they will not be able to make it to higher education.

But even in the area of learning quality, the evidence points to improvemen­t. The Trends in Internatio­nal Mathematic­s and Science Study showed substantia­l improvemen­ts in mathematic­s and science achievemen­t at the Grade 9 level between 2002 and 2011. However, this improvemen­t is off a very low base.

Educationa­l outcomes in SA remain far too low, especially among youths from poor communitie­s. But claims that education was better under apartheid, or that outcomes have deteriorat­ed in the past 20 years have no basis in reality. Dr Taylor is a researcher in the Department of Basic Education.

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