File picture: Phill Magakoe – Students from various universities during their protest march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa demanding that university fees must fall.
By Edwin Naidu
Almost three decades after democracy, youth unemployment remains South Africa’s, Achilles Heel.
This could lead to a revolt similar to the Arab Spring uprising in North Africa and parts of the Middle East, warned former President Thabo Mbeki recently when he said that the ruling party’s failure to tackle poverty, unemployment and inequality could eventually boil over.
Twelve years ago, the protests – dubbed the Arab Spring – rapidly spread in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya as young protesters frustrated by dictatorships looking after themselves and their chosen ones took to the streets to force change. Mbeki’s warning to the ANC seemingly in the same sinking boat as those who assumed they would govern forever, should not be taken lightly.
Increasingly, Mbeki has been finding his voice again in the ANC – and people are paying attention. But what Mbeki said is not new.
While he was in the political wilderness, in October 2015, South Africa was witness to the #Feesmustfall student-driven protests to stop the increase in student fees and call for more funding for tertiary institutions.
South Africa has already had a taste of its own Arab Spring. And the students have already flexed their muscles. Those protests escalated swiftly at the University of the Witwatersrand, University of Cape Town and Rhodes University. Protests turned ugly but ended when the government agreed there would be no tuition fee hikes the following year. The students got what they wanted. But their actions were the clearest signal of frustration from the young directed to the tertiary sector and government.
Not much has changed since. South Africa’s tertiary system continues to benefit the elite few. On recent evidence, the haves are getting stronger while those without a seat at the table continue to be pushed further away feeding on scraps.
Statistics South Africa raised the unemployment ticking bomb minus the political undertones when it opined that youth continue to be disadvantaged in the labour market with an unemployment rate higher than the national average. According to the Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) for the first quarter of 2022, the unemployment rate was 63,9% for those aged 15-24 and 42,1% for those aged 25-34 years, while the current official national rate stands at 34,5%.
Although the graduate unemployment rate remains relatively low in South Africa compared to those of other educational levels, unemployment among the youth continues to be a burden, irrespective of educational attainment. Year-on-year, the unemployment rate among young graduates (aged 15-24 years) declined from 40,3% to 32,6%, while it increased by 6,9 percentage points to 22,4% for those aged 25-34 years in Q1: 2022.
This begs the question which may yet result in further angst ahead: Are South Africa’s 26 public universities and 50 Technical and Vocational Education and Training colleges producing graduates equipped to contribute to the country’s economic and social challenges?
The answer borne out by the unemployment statistics would suggest a resounding no. There is no doubt that the higher education system post-1994 has made great strides in transforming by putting in place a platform for a new higher education landscape constituted by a single, co-ordinated and differentiated system encompassing universities, universities of technology, comprehensive institutions, contact and distance institutions and various colleges. In place is a policy framework for higher education.
The system sought to encourage increased participation within higher education to advance social equity and meet economic and social development needs.
According to the Council on Higher Education, student enrolments grew from 473 000 in 1993 to some 799 388 (40% increase) in 2008 (DHET, 2016), and by 2018 student enrolments had grown to 1 085 568 (DHET, 2019). The CHE noted that the 2001 National Plan for Higher Education’s target of 20% gross participation rate by 2016 was achieved and currently stands at 22%. But the participation rate of black Africans and coloureds increased to only 19% and 15% respectively in 2018 (from 9% and 13% in 1993), as compared to 55% for white students.
But how many students entering the tertiary education system actually leave with the qualification they enrolled for? Known as the throughput rate, this is the actual number of students completing or dropping out of their studies. In some instances, students take up to six to seven years to complete a three-year degree. Several years ago the former Statistician General Pali Lehohla said this was an example of inefficiency, labelling the slow throughput rate as a drain on the education system.
But one hardly hears education chiefs talk about this. Degrees should and can be pursued with greater agility, maybe far more quickly than the current practice.
In terms of the quality of graduates emerging out of the system, the higher education analytics group, QS Quacquarelli Symonds said graduates from the University of Cape Town and the University of the
Witwatersrand was most likely to find jobs. Add to these two, the University of Pretoria, Stellenbosch, University of Johannesburg and University of Kwazulu Natal and you will have a list of varsities with the most employable graduates. One could be forgiven for thinking that the remaining 20 public institutions and 50 TVET colleges are not contributing to the workplace but merely adding to the unemployment queues.
This subject alone cannot be interrogated in one take, given the high unemployment rate of graduates. In fact, there is a strong reason to establish how the TVET sector is contributing to the workplace. But there’s strong anecdotal evidence that former historically disadvantaged universities and TVET colleges are currently struggling to get their graduates placed. Corporate South Africa hardly looks beyond the traditional, advantaged institutions when it comes to tapping into the talent pool of the future. That surely will change when future employers are satisfied with the quality of graduates being produced.
Last week the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Science Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande called on all employers to open their company doors to students enrolled on Training and TVET colleges to provide workplace learning for job creation. He must be the king of wishful thinking.
Why on Earth would they do that when then the evidence showing that TVET graduates can take their place in the 21 st century workplace is sorely lacking?
TVET colleges have not shown that they are equipping the country’s workforce with the skills required in a number of areas. Secondly, given the high number of unemployed graduates from universities, why would prospective employers hire anyone with a TVET qualification when there are tens of thousands of people walking the streets with a varsity degree? Is South Africa churning out graduates for unemployment?
The current reality, according to Stats SA, is that South Africa has over 10 million young people aged 15-24 years and, of these, only 2,5 million were in the labour force, either employed or unemployed.
The largest share (7,7 million or 75,1 %) of this group of young people are those that are out of the labour force (i.e. inactive). The main reason for being inactive is they have lost hope of finding a job that suits their skills or in the area, they reside. Of this, 37,0% were disengaged from the labour market in South Africa. These are regarded as youth, not in employment, education or training (NEET). A large share of these (NEET) young people are discouraged. There has been an increase in the NEET rate for both males and females.
The gap, however, has decreased significantly between them year on year.
Given that the South African government and the tertiary sector have had a taste of our own Arab Spring with #Feesmustfall, the question remains, what can be done to address it before it boils over again? StatsSA inadvertently reflects alignment with Mbeki in that young people are not encouraged by what is happening.
While there are efforts to boost participation in employment, education or training is important for youth to find employment and achieve self-sufficiency. The 2022 National Budget includes R5,2 billion in tax relief to help support the economic recovery, including incentives for youth employment, but certainly issues of youth unemployment remain. Higher education authorities and the government not remain blind to the growing youth unemployment problem and must act swiftly to address this challenge. Failure to do so could result in another wave of protests like
#Feesmustfall which clearly demonstrated the student protesters in the country have already shown that they know what it takes to win against both a sector and government that did not listen.
Naidu is a seasoned journalist and communications expert. He is also the head of Higher Education Media Services, a social enterprise start-up committed to stimulating dialogue and raising awareness around education and the socio-economic, environmental and political factors it is influenced by in South Africa and the African Continent.