My M&G article responding to the Statistician General

Spaull M&G 13 May

This was first published in the Mail & Guardian on the 13th of May 2016. The PDF of the article is also available as text below:

Black graduates have doubled in last 10 years – Dr Nic Spaull

As someone who has written quite extensively about the failings of our education system, I was unusually surprised by the quotes emerging in the media coverage of a recent Stats SA report and even more so by the Statistician General Pali Lehohla’s comments last week. Following publication of the report, titled “The Social Profile of Youth”, the Business Day was quick to inform us that apparently black youth were less educated now than 20 years ago.” The Daily Maverick ran a similar headline: “Stats SA claims black youth are less skilled than their parents”, with equally alarmist coverage in Times Live, ENCA, SABC etc. Unfortunately StatsSA did not denounce the media’s claims. The story seems to have grown legs, with former president Thabo Mbeki calling it a “national emergency” and the Shadow Minister of Basic Education speaking of “the collapse of education in poor communities.”

Of course none of this is true. As we shall see, Black youth have higher levels of educational attainment today than at any other point in South Africa’s history. There are more Black matrics, more black high level passes in mathematics and science, and many more Black university graduates. (Note that this is both as a proportion of the Black population and in absolute terms). In this article I will focus on black university graduates since everyone agrees that there have been large increases in black youth passing matric and achieving bachelor’s passes.

If we cut to the chase the confusion all centres on one strange graph (Figure 4.2) appearing on page 64 of the 2015 Stats SA report “Census 2011: A profile of education enrolment, attainment and progression in South Africa” and the misinterpretation of what that graph apparently shows. That graph shows that the proportion of black and coloured youth that graduate with a bachelor’s degree “after completing matric” has been declining for 20 years, while for whites and Indians it has been increasing. This is very strange and does not seem to agree with other, perhaps more reliable data sources. Unlike when trying to measure things like the unemployment rate or wages (where you have to turn to household survey data or the Census), when counting the number of university degrees awarded it’s a little easier. We can look at surveys, but we can also just look at the Higher Education Management Information System (Hemis) the record-keeping system stating who has been granted what degree and when. All degrees that are granted must be recorded on this database. So what does Hemis tell us about the number of black youth actually getting degrees over the last 20 years?

Fortuitously, this exact question was addressed in a Stellenbosch Economic Working Paper (08/16) published last week by my colleague Dr Hendrik van Broekhuizen. In that paper he shows that “while the number of White graduates produced annually has increased only moderately from about 27 500 to just over 35 000 in the past 25 years, the number of Black graduates produced has increased more than 16-fold from about 3 400 in 1986 to more than 63 000 in 2012.” For this article I was particularly interested in degrees rather than diplomas or certificates) and he kindly provided the figures for degrees only by race (see figure below). The changes have been equally dramatic. Between 1994 and 2014 the number of black graduates with degrees being produced each year has more than quadrupled, from about 11,339 (in 1994) to 20,513 (in 2004) to 48,686 graduates (in 2014). Even if one only focuses on the recent period between 2004 and 2014 Black graduates increased by about 137% (compared to 9% for whites), while the black population grew by about 16% over the same period.

This might lead us to yet another famous South African myth; that graduate unemployment is high (it isn’t) or increasing (it’s not). Again, rigorous research by Dr Van Broekhuizen and Professor Servaas van der Berg convincingly debunks this hoax. They conclude their research report as follows: “The frequently reported ‘crisis in graduate unemployment’ in South Africa is a fallacy based on questionable research. Not only is graduate unemployment low at less than 6%, but it also compares well with rates in developed countries. The large expansion of black graduate numbers has not significantly exacerbated unemployment amongst graduates….Black graduates are, however, still more likely to be unemployed than white graduates.” (Note: in 2015 black graduate unemployment was about 9% compared to 3% for whites.) [Their extended article is here]

 Another colleague of mine, Dr Stephen Taylor in his response to the Statistician General (Business Day, 29 April) has shown why Stats SA’s Figure 4.2 is so misleading (essentially the increase in black matrics was larger than the increase in black graduates, but both increased substantially). Unfortunately the SG has simply lashed out at Dr Taylor referring to his critique as “technically incomprehensible and policy irrelevant” (Business Day, 5 May). To avoid a similar riposte let me be clear: Black graduates have more than doubled in the last ten years. The black population hasn’t. Therefore, black youth are more likely to get degrees than 10 years ago. I think this is both technically comprehensible and policy relevant.

The argument that “black youth are regressing educationally” feeds a dangerous narrative that is not supported by any education data in South Africa. Not improving fast enough, yes. Regressing, no. Black youth have higher educational attainment now than at any point in South Africa’s history. This does not change my firmly held view that our education system is in crisis and that we need meaningful reform, that goes without saying. The egregious levels of educational inequality between working class and middle-class families, and between whites and blacks should cause alarm. And yes, our youth unemployment problem is monumental and unsustainable; there is widespread and legitimate research to show that. But spreading fallacious rumours and causing doubt where there is none, helps no one. Together with a number of colleagues and officials I would ask the Statistician General to please clarify his comments on black graduates and set the record straight.


Dr Nic Spaull is a Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg, the University of Stellenbosch and the OECD.  

Workings for graphs (thanks Hendrik van Broekhuizen!)

Year Black Coloured Asian White
Y1986 2957 1131 1532 17601
Y1987 3153 1280 1692 19064
Y1988 3546 1349 1771 20494
Y1989 4043 1760 1930 21613
Y1990 4862 1958 1975 22747
Y1991 7115 2230 2170 23800
Y1992 8130 2270 2363 24901
Y1993 8661 2392 2621 24571
Y1994 11339 2127 3023 25538
Y1995 13123 1833 2506 16885
Y1996 15781 1785 2479 16363
Y1997 17367 1869 2713 16385
Y1998 17181 1949 2796 15650
Y1999 19093 1785 2175 15410
Y2000 20379 1909 3193 15896
Y2001 17017 1913 3430 16017
Y2002 16222 2075 3712 17094
Y2003 17234 2322 3776 17948
Y2004 20513 2640 4307 18757
Y2005 21052 2916 4505 19860
Y2006 22508 3097 4805 20732
Y2007 23356 3480 4840 20522
Y2008 25373 3677 4984 20482
Y2009 27869 3866 4774 20555
Y2010 31453 4366 4690 20456
Y2011 34209 4456 5109 20248
Y2012 40001 4778 5089 20303
Y2013 45948 5291 5748 21548
Y2014 48686 5622 5529 20510

*These include the following: General Academic Bachelor’s Degree; Professional First Bachelor’s Degree; Baccalaureus Technologiae Degree; Professional First Bachelor’s Degree; First National Diploma (3 years); First National Diploma (4 years)

Figures refer to the number of HE awards and will thus be at least as large as the number of graduates produced in each year. Includes only undergraduate degrees. (Thus excludes all UG   diplomas, and certificates

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