Figure 1: Proportions of the population achieving secondary education (left) and a bachelors degree (right). (Source: Stats SA (2015): CENSUS 2011: A profile of education enrolment, attainment and progression in South Africa, page 41.)
On the 18th of April the Business Day published a piece titled, “Black youth less educated now than 20 years ago.” This statement is simply wrong and unsupported by any data set. Yet the story is now gaining momentum and has been published by other news outlets, such as the Daily Maverick, reporting that “Stats SA claims black youth are less skilled than their parents.”
The article asserts that “black and coloured youths have regressed in their educational achievements” and that the proportion of black and coloured youth that complete a university degree as a share of the population has decreased. This is factually incorrect.
The article references a recent Stats SA report on the status of the youth as well as comments by the Statistician General, Pali Lohohla, as the basis for these assertions.
But in fact, the Stats SA published reports (as with all other analysis I have seen or done) indicate 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 and are still increasing. It is thus not clear where this misconception arose.
I suspect the mistake may have arisen through a misunderstanding of a statistic which has been presented by the Statistician General recently and which appears in Stats SA’s report on educational enrolment, attainment and progression (December 2015). The statistic shows that the proportion of black and coloured youths who achieve a bachelors degree “after completing grade 12” has been declining over the last 20 to 30 years.
It needs to be understood that this statistic is the proportion of matriculants who go on to attain a degree. In other words, the denominator in this calculation 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 – and this is the important part – there have been big improvements in both. The fact that the increase in degree completion has been slower than the increase in matric completion is not at all an indication that youth are worse off now than 20 years ago.
So the ‘bad’ news is that degree completion, although it has increased, has not kept pace with the fast increase in the attainment of matric amongst black and coloured youths. But this certainly does not mean that educational outcomes are worse than 20 years ago.
So what do the numbers actually say? The Stats SA report issued in December shows that the proportion of black people completing matric has been consistently increasing from about 20% to about 50% over the last 50 years. That report also indicates that the proportion of black people completing a degree has increased from about 2% to about 4% over the same period.
Whether you read official Stats SA reports or do your own calculations on the various Stats SA datasets – I have analysed Census data from 1996, 2001 and 2011 as well as General Household Survey data from 2002 to 2014 – it is clear that both matric attainment and degree attainment has been increasing amongst the black and coloured population.
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 2015 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, which has been about 1% a year. Even since 2008, the number of black matric passes has increased from about 250 000 to over 350 000. And the number of black people achieving a bachelors pass in matric has increased from about 60 000 to about 120 000 since 2008.
I am by no means suggesting that everything is fine in our education system. 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. And 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 education statistics to me are the low proportions of children achieving basic literacy and numeracy in the early grades. International assessments of education quality point to serious deficiencies in this area, even compared to some other countries in the region. 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 (TIMSS) 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 South Africa remain far too low, especially amongst youths from poor communities. But claims that education was better under apartheid or that outcomes have deteriorated over the last 20 years are alarmist and have no basis in reality.
Dr Stephen Taylor is a researcher in the South African Department of Basic Education. His work includes impact evaluation of education interventions, measuring educational performance and equity in educational outcomes. In 2010 he completed a PhD in economics at the University of Stellenbosch, analysing educational outcomes of poor South African children.
(This article first appeared in the Business Day on Friday the 29th of April 2016)