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Learning in South Africa

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In this, the first in a two-blog series on learning in South Africa, we examine the higher education landscape and current challenges


The higher education system in South Africa has experienced turbulent times in recent years. Student protests, university shutdowns, issues with student finances in the “Fees Must Fall” movement, together with high competition for places have all contributed to a challenging environment. More recently, it has been necessary to execute a dramatic shift from on-campus to online learning in light of the COVID-19 crisis. Yet, some students lack the necessary equipment or connectivity for this and have home situations not conducive to learning.

At the start of the new millennium, South Africa began a radical transformation of the higher education sector. The number of universities was cut from 36 through incorporations and mergers – some of which created huge universities – aimed at breaking down apartheid’s racial divides and transforming the sector. Today there are 26 universities, however the number of places in these traditional institutions is far below rising demand from the enterprise sector for graduates with the right kind of skills to meet the needs of the workplace. All these factors combine to place a high degree of pressure on learning.

Completion rates

Meeting demand is one thing but another equally important factor in successful educational outcomes is course completions. Students dropping out before the end of their studies are an opportunity missed, not only for the future prospects of those students but also for those who, had they been able to secure a university place, may have gone on to graduate.

Last year it was reported that only 22 per cent of 2010 cohort students in South Africa completed their degrees in three years; 39 percent did so in four but by year six, still only 56 percent of registrants had completedi.

Of course, there are many reasons why students may not be able to complete a course of study but two factors stand out. Firstly, the student community is incredibly diverse with starting levels of knowledge varying enormously: this makes a traditional ‘one size fits all’ teaching approach less likely to succeed. Secondly, students don’t necessarily have the financial backing they need to stay in university, and many find they cannot afford living and other costs without a working income to back them up.

The loss of students from education before they are qualified is further exacerbated by the net loss of skills from the country. Indeed, one estimate put the number of skilled workers leaving South Africa at, “more than eight times” the number who arriveii.

How can universities reduce drop-out rates? Find out more >

A widening skills gap

To keep up with the pace of change in the working world and produce graduates with the knowledge and capabilities that make them employable, university courses are having to adapt.

Enterprises need qualified graduates with the skills sets they require in their workforces. Yet, according to a report into skills supply and demand, “skilled labour can be difficult to find in most skilled and professional segments” with skills in shortage occupations including complex problem and solving skills, computers and electronics, and management. Also in demand are technical and financial management skills.

Unfortunately, skills needs evolve all the time, especially in the face of technology which has automated many tasks previously undertaken by skilled workers. It has been reported that “skilled labour can be difficult to find in most skilled and professional segments largely due to the poor state of the public education system.”iii

So, what skills will be needed as we move further into the 21st century and begin to work out what our new normal will be post COVID-19? It could be argued that digital skills are as essential as numeracy and literacy. Industries going through a digital transformation seek graduates with capabilities in this area and this means starting student tuition in coding, robotics and other disciplines early. Indeed, the Department of Education in South Africa has recognised this and is beginning a pilot study to introduce these subjects at school leveliv.

To help face higher education challenges in South Africa, an opportunity exists to explore digital forms of tutoring and learning. In this way, classroom teaching can be supplemented and learning continuity provided for when students are off campus. During the current period of shutdown it was suggested that institutions spend time exploring online tools for future digital support of learning.

A hybrid learning model, which blends online with face-to-face tutoring, can help meet capacity challenges and support students who would struggle to travel to university. At the same time, digital learning programmes can help students to learn at their own pace through personalised learning journeys accessed from a range of devices, not just a PC.

How online learning can help meet challenges in higher education will be the subject of our second blog in this series on South Africa. It will explore how online and hybrid learning models can help meet education and skills needs through feature-rich, scalable courses tailored to deliver learning outcomes.    

[i] As reported in BusinessTech: South Africa’s university pass rate shocker, 13 November 2019
[ii] Africa Check as reported in BusinessTech: South Africa’s emigration problem – no one knows how big the brain drain really is, 23 May 2019
[iii] Department of Higher Education and Training, Skills supply and demand in South Africa, 2019 referencing International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / The World Bank. (2018). Overcoming Poverty and Inequality in South Africa. An Assessment of Drivers, Constraints and Opportunities.
[iv] As reported in SA People News: South Africa Introducing Coding, Robotics in Grades R to 3 14 February 2020

Additional sources:
Chothia, A. The South African, Coronavirus outbreak closes all South African universities, colleges 17 March 2020
Department of Higher Education and Training, Skills supply and demand in South Africa, 2019
Areff, A. and Spies, D. news24 BREAKING: Zuma announces free higher education for poor and working class students 16 December 2017
Daniel, L. The South African Zuma’s ‘free education’ announcement has crippled NSFAS 2018
Sobuwa, Y. Sowetan Live Students embark on university national shutdown 27 January 2020
eNCA Call to suspend online learning at UJ 17 April 2020

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Table of Contents

  1. Completion rates
  2. A widening skills gap