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Gender and race gaps remain at SA universities

Racial and gender disparities persist in South Africa’s higher education system, although gains have been made since 2000, the national statistical bureau has found.

Statistics South Africa published its report on higher education in the country at the end of March. It analysed government data from 2016 and 2017 and conducted a survey of students.

There are clear gender disparities at university level. In 2016 more than half of women were enrolled either in education or business, economics and management studies. Two-and-a-half times more women were enrolled in social sciences than men, while close to three times more men than women were enrolled in engineering.

About 30 per cent of all students in 2016 were enrolled in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. Enrolment in physical science, life science and mathematics was low: 8.6 per cent of men and 7 per cent of women. Only 1 per cent of the total number of women students at all levels were enrolled in mathematics.

White students were more likely to be enrolled for postgraduate studies at honours, masters and PhD level. In 2016, 3.8 per cent of white students were enrolled for a PhD compared to 1.7 per cent each for black and coloured students.

Enrolment of black PhD students showed the largest growth of all racial groups between 2000 and 2016. However, the percentage of PhD enrolments among black students in 2000 was only 0.5 per cent.

Degree completion remains an issue, the report states: “Many students drop out, without completing a qualification or take up to six years to complete a three-year qualification. Very few students progress to [postgraduate study].”

It is not all bad news in terms of gender. Close to 60 per cent of PhD enrolments in 2016 were women, as were slightly more than half of the honours enrolments. Men outnumbered women at masters level, but only just. The total number of female graduates at universities and universities of technology has been rising since 2000, and in 2016 slightly more than 61 per cent of graduates were women. Close to two-thirds of postgraduate degree holders aged 20-24 were women in 2017.

The report found 2.8 million South Africans between the ages of 18-24 did not attend an education institution in 2017. Of these, 2.4m were black Africans, and only 15 per cent of those said they were satisfied with their level of education. Just over half, 53 per cent,  said that they didn’t have money for fees, and 20 per cent said that their inability to study further was the result of of poor academic performance. Meanwhile, only 28 per cent of whites who were out of education in the same age group said they could not afford fees while 53 per cent said they were happy with their educational achievement.

Slightly more than a third of whites between 18-24 attended a post-secondary school education institution. This number was far higher than for other racial groups: 27 per cent for Indians and Asians, 10 per cent for black Africans, and 8 per cent for “coloured” students. A slightly higher percentage of women attended a post-secondary school institution than men. Overall attendance in post-secondary education for 18 to 24-year olds was only 11.6 per cent.

The competency in mathematics and science of students entering university remains problematic and gendered. Only half of national senior certificate, or matric, learners passed mathematics in 2017. Women were less likely to pass then men, at 47 per cent and 58 per cent respectively. No progress has been made to rectify the disparity, the difference between women and men who pass has remained constant at around 10 to 11 percentage points since 2010.

Results are better in physical sciences, with a pass rate of close to two-thirds in the NSC exams. Men again have a higher pass rate than women, although the difference is much smaller than in mathematics.